Free TV shows from Fox, ABC and NBC (with catches)

There are more options than ever to download TV shows. Too bad none quite works very well.

Published September 21, 2007 5:21PM (EDT)

Fox announced today that it has signed a deal with Apple to provide season premieres of seven of its shows for free over iTunes. The contract comes amid much news from networks regarding online television options. Here's the rundown:

  • Fox will give away downloads of seven of its shows -- including "Prison Break," "Bones," "American Dad" and "K-Ville" -- on Apple's store. The episodes usually sell for $1.99, and they contain no advertisements; iTunes shows can be played on PCs, Macs and, using an iPod, iPhone or Apple TV, on your television. Only the season premiere of the Fox shows will be free, and only for the next two weeks. The network's rationale here is straightforward: New shows -- and even returning old shows -- need to build up an audience quickly in the new season, and the networks hope free downloads will get a lot of people hooked. Something like the logic of the cigarette business, you might say.
  • ABC says it will put some if its shows on AOL's video-streaming site. This is meant mainly for watching at your computer. (Yes, A.V. club members, I know it's possible to connect a computer to a TV.) The move is just a slight addition to ABC's previous strategy of streaming its shows on its own Web site -- the company will keep doing that, and AOL is just another place where people can find "Grey's Anatomy," "Cavemen" and other offerings. The streaming shows will contain advertisements. ABC is owned by Disney, of which Apple CEO Steve Jobs is the largest shareholder, so naturally, ABC's shows are also available on iTunes.
  • NBC, oh NBC, folly be thy name. I mean to say, Did you play with a lot of lead-painted Barbies when you were small, NBC? Because seriously, this is not a smart move: After famously walking away from iTunes last month -- NBC wanted to raise the price of downloads, Apple wanted to lower it -- the network is offering a new plan to put its shows into nerds' hands. The company says that in October it will launch NBC Direct, a system that will let you download network shows for "free."

    But here's what "free" means: NBC Direct will use a proprietary video player that is gummed up with copy-protection tools. The shows you download will be viewable only for a week of their original air date, and they'll include unskippable ads. Again, this is a computer-only solution -- NBC's video player works only on Windows, though the network says it'll have a Mac version soon. If you want to watch NBC's shows on TV, the network also offers them -- for $1.99 each, ad-free, as it used to do on iTunes -- on Amazon's Unbox service (Unbox connects to TVs through TiVo).

Don't all these moves seem a bit like stumbling? The networks are all being so timid here, giving us what looks like a good thing and then ruining the deal with all sorts of limitations.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, I've already come up with a perfect solution for the networks: Give me each show at a good price, ad-free, in a format that works on my TV without any hassle, and I will give you a lot of money. Damn, I think I'm going to have to just quote myself lecturing NBC:

If you sell me your TV shows for 99 cents -- $23 a season -- I'd either cancel or cut back on my Comcast subscription and give you that money instead. Like many people, I have never bought a DVD of a TV show, and yet here I am offering, now, to buy shows from you. The same goes for all the networks. I'll pay you for what you're currently giving me for free ... Do you hear what I'm saying, networks? Take my money! Please!

My offer still stands. Any takers?

"Fox Tries New Lure for iPod Crowd" [Los Angeles Times]
"ABC to Offer Programs on AOL Video" [Broadcasting & Cable]
" to Provide Free, Ad-Supported Downloads of Popular Shows" [Ars Technica]

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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