Tip of the Quill: A Journal
Must-See TV: Apple TV or Three-Tier TV?

As I’ve been working on my THESIS, I’ve come to appreciate the iTunes video store in an all-new way. The Apple TV device is finally shipping to stores this week, but as my recent behavior has shown, I’m not entirely sure I’m the right market for it. (Me? Not lusting after an Apple product? Horrors!) Some analysts are calling the Apple TV a ‘DVD killer’, or a ‘cable killer’, and so on, but what I’ve found, however, is that I’ve developed three tiers of TV watching – and there may not be room in this model for Jobs’ new baby.
Tier One: Must-See Event TV
Tier One is my ‘must-see event TV’, where watching the show the night it’s on is an event in and of itself. This can either be done alone or with friends, but these shows are my A-1 prime choices, the shows that I look forward to eagerly every week and have to see either in real-time or at a slight delay, thanks to TiVo. The shows I watch this way are 24, House, Stargate, Stargate: Atlantis, and the late, lamented Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. These are the shows that, if they were movies in theaters, I’d be there opening night with popcorn in my hands and an idiotic grin on my face. Fanboy TV? Perhaps.
Tier Two: Reliable Time-Shifted TV
Tier Two is ‘reliable time-shifted TV’, which is akin to a magazine subscription in my media consumption patterns. I always TiVo all the shows on the first tier, even as I’m watching them, because the desire is there to be absolutely certain I’ll catch those episodes, and then to keep them around for a while afterwards in case I want to rewatch them. There are other shows, though, that I’ll TiVo for eventual watching, but aren’t quite worth planting my butt on the couch in near-real time. This is either due to time commitment, a conflict of other shows, or just a completely untenable time slot. My shows on Tier Two are the new animated The Batman, Mythbusters, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and anything with Jamie “Naked Chef” Oliver in it. These are the shows that, if they were magazines, I’d still dutifully subscribe to them and happily flip through them if I got the chance, but still often pile up in a corner somewhere without being consumed.
Tier Three: Impulse TV?
Tier Three, the newest tier, consists of all the shows I buy off the iTunes store. Now, this last cluster is messy because my iTunes library has shows from both Tier One and Tier Two for various reasons. There are eps of Stargate and 24 that I missed for whatever reason (usually a TiVo sneeze of some sort). The real collection, though, is of a different type of TV – the sort of ‘impulse watch’ television that’s usually associated with channel surfing.
Maybe that’s the kicker – that I never, ever channel surf anymore. instead, I iTunes surf.
Many of the shows I’ve bought off iTunes are ironically shows that I didn’t bother TiVoing. This is because I somehow view the space on my house’s TiVo as being worth more than space on my hard drive. There are one-offs of shows that I just wanted to try out, like Psych or Raines. But what I’m discovering is that there are also shows that I try on iTunes and then start to buy religiously to play in the background while I’m doing other things. This is a luxury of having multiple machines, I know, so it makes me an outlier of sorts in the market, but it’s still a notable phenomenon – while I wouldn’t bother TiVoing The Dresden Files, I now have every episode on my Mac. The same with Ghost Hunters, and I have a sneaking suspicion I’m going to wind up doing the same thing with Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
Are these shows I expect to watch over and over again? Not really. Is this an example of backward thinking? Perhaps. But it’s worth something – $1.99 – to have exactly the right engagement-level of content in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
In a way, it’s ‘Impulse TV’ – similar to the impulse buy of just the right magazine or candy bar in the checkout aisle of a grocery store. It’s notable that Target has begun to place DVDs at the end of their checkout aisles as well – movies as just another impulse buy, usually for under ten bucks, a cheap hit of content. Usually these films aren’t the Oscar-winners, either – they’re romantic comedies or stuff-blowing-up guy movies, cheap thrill horror flicks or frat humor films. This is not that dissimilar to the stuff in my third tier – is The Dresden Files the next Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Hell no. But it’s also just clever enough and funny enough to make me want to put it on in the background while I’m doing something else. And when I finish one episode, its easy enough to click the mouse again for another cheap hit – $1.99? It’s only slightly more expensive than a Coke! – and get another one. At four bucks for 90 minutes of content, and six bucks for 135 minutes, it’s cheaper and more convenient than going to Blockbuster.
Squeezing the Apple TV into the Tiers
This is where the iTunes store starts to creak under its own weight, however. This same pricing structure should also apply to films. Movies are still just too damned expensive for what you get from Apple. Impulse buying takes a hit when it takes so long for the files to download. We’re in dire need of a new compression technology that speeds this business up. Once the show starts to play the second my finger clicks that mouse, Apple will see its impulse buys skyrocket. Jobs is no idiot – he’s probably howling for the QuickTime team to get that tech on his desk, like, yesterday. But until they get a better system in place, either through some holy grail codec or via some kind of P2P system (or, most likely, a combination of both), serial impulse buying on the iTunes Store is probably going to be relegated to outliers like me.
The second challenge facing the iTunes store is the cost-quality ratio. I want to buy The Prestige, but $15 is too much for a DRM’ed file that is still relatively low-quality. Would I pay $10 for it, or $15 for the HD version of the same film? Probably, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that was precisely the direction Apple was headed, given the Apple TV’s emphasis on HDTV connectivity. Well, all right – this is Apple we’re talking about, so it’s more likely to be $15 for low-res and $20 for HD – but is $20 worth it for an HD film? Quite probably, yes – especially considering that Casino Royale, the first high-def disc to crack Amazon’s top 25 sales chart, is still selling for $27 at the House of Bezos, with a whopping MSRP of $38.96.
This is where the Apple TV might fit in my consumption pattern – for movies. I’m unlikely to spend the extra moolah on TV shows on the iTunes store to stream to the exact same TV that’s hooked up to my TiVo, when my Tier One and Tier Two shows are already on that TiVo. If there’s a notable difference in quality that’s a possibility, but for the most part… Unh-uh. Nor, for that matter, do I want to stream my Tier Three shows to my living room – if I was going to watch those shows in my living room, then I would have just TiVoed them in the first place.
But movies, though, those are a different story. Movies I do want to move from viewing area to viewing area. If I downloaded The Prestige, I would want to watch it both in the living room with friends or on my computer, because that’s a media form that crosses tiers. Some shows are also like that, but for the most part these are my Tier Ones and Twos – which means that I’m more likely to pony up the $99 for a copy of Toast 8, which is currently the only place to get TiVoToGo for the Mac, instead of the $299 for an Apple TV.
What would it take for me to make the switch? The firts hurdle is the price – TiVoing all the episodes of Studio 60 would have meant that each episode showed up on my TV every week for free (well, after the price of my cable bill). Obtaining that content through the iTunes store (and, thus, through the Apple TV device) would have cost me $35.00, and would have required me to log into the iTunes store, then “make sure you are signed in to iTunes and then click here to download any episode currently waiting in your queue”. I’m astonished Apple, the kings of usability, still require Season Pass subscribers to fire up iTunes every week and then manually click a button to download the content they’ve pre-ordered, then wait around for the content to be downloaded until they can watch it. This is a gap I hope they’ll close with the Apple TV – people like me who are used to their chosen content already being there when they fire up their TiVos aren’t going to happily adopt a multi-step acquisition process when they want to see their shows, not to mention the time gap between when the show airs on TV and when it goes up on the iTunes store.
This is not to say the device doesn’t have promise – far from it. In fact, just typing this is making me want to rush out and buy one just to try it out, cost and use patterns be damned. That we’ve come this far already suggests to me that these last couple of gaps will be closed soon enough, which is good for everyone involved. Still, I think I’ll hold on to my money just a little bit longer – after all, the next iteration of the Mac OS is supposed to show up this Spring, and who knows what that will hold in store?
Besides, my episode of No Reservations just finished downloading. Gotta go — my show is (finally!) on.

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