Friday, February 03, 2006

iPod Video: Where's the beef?

When the iPod with Video came out last year, I was one of the first to run out and buy one. I'd been wondering when they would finally include the capability, and was more than excited with the initial result. Also, there was a bonus, iTunes video content. Pixar was the first to include content in the form of their famous, Oscar-winning shorts, and of course, Apple began selling music videos as well. I couldn't wait for the moment in which TV shows and movies would begin to show up, and I didn't have to wait long as Disney and ABC quickly added content to the store. Their content was weak, but included the top 2 shows, and a couple of others. Not long after, NBC hopped on the bandwagon and it seemed like this would be the start of a boom of digital content similar to what happened with music. Not quite.

Six months later, except for a couple of exceptions, the iTunes video store is looking like a network dumping station, and a very light one at that. NBC has added such wonderful shows as: Knight Rider (which we all know will be a hit in Germany, though it's not available at the German store - more on this below), the A-Team ( "I pitty the fool" who spends money on this garbage), The Munsters, Adam-12, Dragnet (Just the facts that NBC can suck), Law and Order, etc. In essence, there's a couple of newer shows, and a bunch of old has been shows. Where's Friends? Seinfeld? Frasier? Cheers? On the positive side, they have the most shows of all. ABC may have been the first out of the gate, but it was only recently they added a couple of more shows. Their original lineup, though including Lost and Desperate Housewives, only added the already cancelled but excellent, Night Stalker (a huge disappointment if you enjoyed it because they didn't include the unaired episodes). Also, where's the WB and its famous cartoon shorts and series? And well, let's not even mention the brilliant idiots at CBS, who are not only absent from iTunes, but have recently claimed to want to distribute their content themselves (at similar prices but with viewing limits). There's one major thing that no one can complain about, at least with the iTunes content ( and particularly for Battlestar Galactica crackheads like myself - the only SciFi show included so far), and it's that the latest shows are posted the day after they air for you to purchase at $1.99 a piece (more on prices below).

You'd think that the networks would be salivating at this new source of revenue, and how it could add to their bottom line, particularly for older shows no longer in sydication. Also, it could bring to the attention of viewers less popular shows and what not. I for one am a perfect example, as I did not have a good first impression of the new Battlestar Galactica series. Everyone I know swore by it, but after watching an episode, I remained unconvinced, unconverted, and unsold on the idea of watching it again. Yet, when they put the complete mini-series and both seasons on iTunes, for a measly $2 USD I was able to give it another go. It turned out that the mini-series was so addictive, that I bought both seasons, and can't wait for the next episode to be posted every week. Also, this can push DVD sales, as iTunes video content is in an iPod compatible format and therefore subject to iPod sizing, which though looking acceptable on a television, is nowhere near the pristine, perfect quality brought by the DVD version. This means, people will pay twice for the same content, though the more saavy amongst you will read on in order to save some money.

Broadcast networks, like the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) before them, and all the others, are completely clueless, and in fact encourage piracy by making their content unavailable on services like iTunes, Google video, and what not. People want their content. If they will not sell it to them, people will find a way to acquire it. Later, they'll be crying about and looking to spend their dwindling fortunes on, piracy and the pursuit thereof. This could all have been prevented or at least partly thwarted.

The missing beef

In all this babbling about video and content available or unavailable at the iTunes Music Store, I have only spoken directly about the United States store, which also happens to be the ONLY store to offer Television shows. There are 21 localized iTunes stores and only ONE (the U.S. store) offers shows at all, whilst nine (including the U.S. store) offer music videos for sale along with the small group of Pixar shorts. This means that twelve offer NO video content whatsoever. If you happen to be one of the millions of iPod with video owners outside of the U.S., there's officially NO content for you. What will you do? Steal it, or convert content you own, of course. This is a major mishap, and has had me wondering where's the beef? for the rest of the world anyway.

The shows are available in other languages already, on DVD and in local broadcasts. You see them everywhere when you travel. So, why aren't they available for you to purchase at those stores? This brings me to a basic thought, and correct me if I'm wrong, but who fuels piracy? Bastardly users or mysterious and bearded pirate cartels wearing eyepatches and a parrot on their shoulder? Of course not, it's the content providers who provide NO legal means for you to fill your lovely new iPod with the content that you love.

What's in the cost of beef?

Another interesting point is the pricing of those few precious videos available outside the U.S. Their standard cost in Euros is 2,49 € per show in the few select countries in Europe that have such a priviledge. This is $2.99 USD at today's exchange rate, whereas the standard price at the U.S. store is $1.99 USD. Yes, a lot of those countries are taxed up the cahoot, but you'd think that content providers would look to be fair and equal, and try to at least reach some parity between the pricing throughout the world, particularly when we're talking about digital content. The content is already there and in the local language, so what's happening here? Part of the point being missed by these providers is the point of the internet itself, the fact that, because it's digital, you can sell it to anyone anywhere at your own personal local price. The distribution is worldwide and unlimited. Let people have it, and for $1.99, charged directly to their credit card, the exchange rate will be automatic and everyone will be happy.

Cutting the meat yourself

Sure, our need for instant gratification will have us jumping at a specific series or another, but others, we might already have on DVD or may wish to wait for. Since you'll also want to have these on your iPod, and for those who have NO digital content available for purchase, there are a number of programs that will do the conversion for you. The latest version of Quicktime allows you to convert your content to iPod format, but doesn't allow the conversion of protected content such as DVDs. In the U.S., it isn't illegal for you to back up a DVD you already own because of fair use laws, but it is illegal for software makers to provide the tools under the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998). Thanks to the global power of the internet, these tools are available from where it's actually legal to produce it. A simple search in Google for "DVD to iPod" will yield plenty of options for your favorite computer platform.

One of those available on the MacOS platform is Handbrake (free download). With a single click, you can have your DVD on your iPod in a couple of hours. There are many options available for this process, some simpler than others, some free, some not. My personal favorite on the Mac is Handbrake, but others may be better. Find one you like for your platform, and go fill your shiny new iPod with the content wasting away on your shelf, that could be better served on the road with you. (Handbrake is also available for Linux and Windows)

The final beef

Though I don't condone piracy, it's hard to condemn those who download these shows when they're not even available legally. Many studios complain that piracy is rampant in some of these countries, yet, they don't provide legal alternatives either, or price them competitively at that (99,00 € for ONE season of Star Trek). The iPod video has been out for 6 months, so, where's the content for these markets? The iTunes Music (and now video) Store has proven that people want to pay for content, so get with the program TV execs, and give us the beef we want, else our beef will be with you.

Some additional information:

Apple Computer - makers of our favorite portable player, the iPod.
DMCA - view the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in pdf (requires the free Acrobat reader)
DMCA opinion - The DMCA has many detractors. Here's one.
DMCA Overview - information on the DMCA at Wikipedia.

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