Why there is no iTunes for TV

by Carl Natale on November 13, 2015

I was listening to Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel review Apple TV on the Ctrl-Walt-Delete podcast for The Verge.

Three things that you need to know about this:

  1. Ctrl-Walt-Delete is one of the best titles ever.
  2. Yes they do discuss their reviews of the new Apple TV, but it does touch upon many issues about TV and media streaming.
  3. This kind of rambling discussion works really well when you have two intelligent people who really aren’t trying to prove how clever they are. It’s worth 48 minutes of your time.

What got me thinking was their struggle to compare the music paradigm of albums and songs to television content. iTunes busted that paradigm by allowing us to buy music by the song instead albums. And they struggled because there wasn’t a real good comparison.

You can’t call a television season an album. Although musicians claimed they produced albums with a theme that told a story, for the most part we could enjoy a single song without hearing any other song on that album. Otherwise commercial radio wouldn’t be a thing.

We don’t just pick a few shows from a particular season to watch. A show’s season usually tells a narrative that seeks to bind each episode together. Even most police-lawyer-medical procedurals are stitched together by some narrative thread.

Networks really weren’t albums because we never had to “buy” a whole network. We always were able to switch between networks and choose the individual shows we wanted to see.

Cable bundles are the new albums

But we can make the argument that cable-satellite dish bundles are the albums of television. Subscribers are forced to buy the albums (more commonly called bundles these days) when they only want to consume a fraction of the media covered.

Cord cutting is the disruption that threatens the bundle. But that leads us to different bundle subscriptions. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime are just bundles with different business models. And individual networks are offering bundles. Or albums.

Note, Amazon Prime does allow us to buy or rent individual shows or seasons.

Late night talk albums?

Maybe late night television talk shows are better comparisons to albums. Each show is comprised of individual creative units (Walt Mossberg’s term). The proof that they standalone as entertainment can be seen on YouTube.

These interviews or performances are viral successes. They are just as important to these shows as radio play time are to musicians.

So what?

Now that we have that figured out, we can build the iTunes of TV.

Or not.

There’s not really a business model there. I can’t imagine anyone paying 99 cents to have “The Undertaker Tombstones a Turkey” on their phone.

Maybe they will pay a subscription to have a feed of NBC clips delivered to their phones. I’m talking Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and Saturday Night Live. Yeah, NBC is rolling out a comedy streaming service. But not all of this is comedy. And I doubt it will give exclusive access to just these clips. Which is how we seem to be consuming these variety shows. Ala carte sketches not whole shows.

So here’s the disruption.

What if the talent’s agents work out deals that allows them to sell a service that bundles their clients’ appearances. So George Clooney’s agents will sell clips of all his appearances on talk shows.

I know. How self-absorbed can celebrity culture get?

But it doesn’t have to make that much money to be worthwhile. The talk shows will have to agree not to release the clips as part of their promotions. And the talent will have to weigh those gains against the promotional value. Which is why they do these shows in the first place.

That’s about the only chance an iTunes for TV has for gaining any traction. I’m not holding my breath either.

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