Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

TV Tiptoes into the Web: Why Apple's iTunes Rentals Aren't Game-Changers

Very, very good bet: Steve Jobs will stand up onstage tomorrow and announce that you can rent some episodes of TV shows from iTunes for 99 cents a pop.

I’m told that Apple (AAPL) has finalized a deal with Disney (DIS) for some of its shows, which isn’t a surprise. Steve Jobs has had a hard time convincing other networks, but sources tell me News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox is likely to join in as well, particularly if Rupert Murdoch thinks he can extract some iPad favors out of Jobs down the line (the Los Angeles Times reported the same thing last night).

Big deal? Maybe. Plenty of my bloggy brethren are convinced the TV business model is going to get blowed up real good, with Apple and other Web heavyweights doing the demolition. Even some grown-ups feel the same way.

But it’s worth noting that TV has been facing off against the forces of digital disruption for a long time, and it’s been holding its own so far.

Apple–with an initial push from Disney–started selling TV shows a day after they aired back in 2005, for $1.99 a piece. Five years later, after sales have stagnated, they’re cutting prices by a buck (ignore the rental vs. download distinction–most consumers watch these things only once, anyway).

Bear in mind that you still won’t get to watch any ABC show via iTunes until it’s already aired on TV. And bear in mind that this is in lieu of the product Apple really wanted to sell: $30-a-month Web TV subscriptions.

That doesn’t sound like a tectonic move to me. It sounds like the TV industry protecting its core businesses–advertising and cable fees–while playing around at the margins looking for incremental dollars.

Meanwhile, if Apple, or Google (GOOG) or Netflix (NFLX) or whoever, really wanted to compete head-to-head with cable, it could. The network guys would be happy to sell their programming at the same price, in the same bundles, as the cable guys. That’s what the direct satellite guys started doing in the ’90s, and while the cable guys didn’t like it, there wasn’t much they could do about it.

But those license deals are expensive. Very expensive. The Disney-Time Warner Cable (TWC) license deal, which should be announced any minute (or tomorrow), will likely value each of the cable provider’s 12.7 million subscribers at something north of $8.00 per subscriber, per month. And the Web powerhouses didn’t become Web powerhouses by paying premium prices for other people’s content.

Maybe that stuff really will get devalued, a la music, because most people steal it or ignore it. But we’ve been waiting for that moment for some time and it hasn’t shown up yet.

Or maybe the new generation of devices–we’re only three years into the iPhone era, and just a few months (!) into iPad time–will make a difference this time around. And maybe Apple will use its marketing clout to push the rentals really, really hard.

Maybe! But for now, I think it means a few more dollars, and maybe a few more eyeballs, for “Modern Family.” Which should make Steve Levitan happy, but it won’t change the world.

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