Well, it’s about time. Two years after launching downloadable television shows south of the border, Apple has finally flipped the switch here, albeit with a dearth of content. Single television episodes are available via iTunes for $1.99, and full seasons range from about $10–$30.
Most of the shows currently available are for domestic productions, like CTV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation and the CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie, but non-Canadian shows, like South Park and The Hills, have also shown up. Content from CanWest’s Global, E!, and TVtropolis networks, however, is conspicuously absent. Global, CTV, and CBC already offer free, ad-supported shows online via their proprietary websites, to varying levels of quality and success.
Though customers have laid much of the blame for the delay on Apple, the company has been in a holding pattern due to contractual intricacies. An American network may not necessarily retain the rights to distribute the show internationally, nor would there be incentives for Canadian broadcasters to acquire a series if viewers could watch it elsewhere just as easily. This is also why cable companies switch to domestic feeds on American channels if a show is being simulcast, and why Canadians see shows like Project Runway months after they air in the U.S.
And then there are issues about who gets paid for online content, which is the impetus behind the current Writers Guild of America strike in the U.S. Following a dreadful 1988 deal that blocked writers from receiving residual income from video and rental sales (on the basis of it being a non-lucrative and “unproven market”), the WGA wants to ensure that their members don’t get shafted on “new media” content, which includes iTunes downloads. Currently, there are no residual arrangements for content sold or distributed online—video-on-demand, smart phone “webisodes,” straight-to-internet content, IPTV, and streaming video. The Writers Guild of Canada does have a negotiable “digital production” jurisdictional agreement, though 265 of the WGC’s 1,800 members also belong to the WGA.
All of this makes securing distribution contracts incredibly difficult for Apple, especially when administered internationally. There may already be multiple interests holding international broadcast rights for a variety of “broadcast windows” (periods of time when a company may have worldwide exclusivity, or may only be allowed to air the show).
There are even more challenges for the company from Cupertino: if viewers are looking for episodes of The Office or House M.D., they’re gonna have to look elsewhere. During a recent, shockingly public negotiation, NBC and Apple locked horns over pricing, which saw the broadcaster pull all of its content from iTunes—which made up 40% of Apple’s television content—in favour of its own proprietary Hulu streaming service, and the abysmally useless (and PC-only) NBC Direct option. NBC’s move was especially caustic, as iTunes is credited in large part to saving The Office when it was in danger of cancellation. NBC head Jeff Zucker whines that Apple makes too much money “off the back of our content,” and the broadcaster really doesn’t like the idea of customers keeping digital copies on their hard drives—even with Apple’s relatively non-intrusive FairPlay copy protection. NBC wants to eventually charge more than two bucks per episode for megahits like Heroes, whereas Apple believes that $1.99 is a psychological barrier to the customer that shouldn’t be crossed. In fact, the company apparently wishes the price was even lower.
Offering downloadable television to Canadians is important to Apple for another reason: selling its Apple TV product. Apple TV is a tiny box that wirelessly streams iTunes content from a computer to one’s television set, allowing viewers to watch their downloaded shows on a proper TV screen. Announced last September when Apple simultaneously began offering downloadable movies to American customers, the digital media receiver was of little use to Canadians. Markham-based Apple Canada toed the company line and put it on sale in its stores with much fanfare, but without DVR capability and no downloadable content other than Pixar short films and YouTube clips, there wasn’t much point.
Some may believe that there still isn’t much point—Corner Gas, Canadian Idol, and Little Mosque excepted, domestically-created television doesn’t exactly draw hordes of viewers, and it’s hard to say how popular archival episodes of The Beachcombers might be with the young, tech-savvy crowd. Plus, with traffic shaping and bandwidth capping becoming the norm with Canada’s largest ISPs, the privilege of downloading shows from iTunes could ultimately end up costing a pretty penny.
Yet it remains a welcome and long-overdue debut. Content will undoubtedly improve relatively quickly, including the addition of American shows, and movie downloads and online rentals via iTunes are on the horizon for Canadians (the XBox Live Video Marketplace started offering downloadable flicks on December 11). For now, we’ll just have to keep our stick on the ice.