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Apple Adds HBO Shows To the iTunes Store

HBO is finally starting to recognize the Internet as one of the ways people watch TV. Three months after inviting viewers to watch its series "In Treatment" for free on its Web site, it has begun selling copies of some of its shows on Apple's iTunes Store.

Unfortunately, it's doing so in a halting, tentative manner. Much like the "In Treatment" streaming--a since-ended experiment intended to boost viewership of that five-episodes-a-week drama--and its absurdly limited trial of an "HBO on Broadband" service, HBO's iTunes venture seems designed first to minimize any damage to HBO's existing business model.

It's offering only a subset of its original series, all but one of which are no longer in production: "Deadwood," "Flight of the Conchords," "Rome," "Sex and the City," "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." (You can see them here.)

Episodes of "Deadwood," "Rome" and "The Sopranos" sell for $2.99 each, up from the standard iTunes rate of $1.99. Like all iTunes TV downloads, these files come with digital usage restrictions that prevent you from watching them outside of Apple's software or hardware or burning them to a DVD.

The price hike is a semi-significant development for Apple, which had resisted the concept of variable pricing when, for example, NBC asked to sell some of its shows at a higher price. Personally, I have no problem with the concept of different items bearing different prices; this is something we deal with when we shop for every other sort of product, so why not here?

(I am, however, extremely opposed to variable usage rights enforced by "digital rights management," a severe problem at other download stores.)

HBO's half-step into online distribution isn't a bad start overall, but it's not what I'd call "good" either. Note all the shows that aren't available: No "Curb Your Enthusiasm," no "Entourage," no "Tell Me You Love Me," no "John Adams," and so on. And note that there's no discount for buying a full season's worth of shows at once.

This network seems scared of losing even a single customer that might otherwise be paying $16 a month or more to watch its content over cable or satellite.

It is making a fundamental mistake if it thinks it can ignore potential viewers who go looking for its content online. That would be every bit as foolish as ignoring satellite TV in 1994 on the grounds that "everybody is happy to watch our stuff on cable."

All of the major networks seem to have figured this out by now; they offer free, ad-supported streaming of their shows as well as ad-free downloads through such outlets as iTunes or Microsoft's Zune Marketplace. What makes HBO think it's so special that it doesn't have to play by the same laws of capitalism as everybody else?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 13, 2008; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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HBO comes and goes in my house . . . we had it for Sopranos, and we brought it back for John Adams, and now we'll likely dump it again. On Cox in NoVa you get around 8 HBO channels, and it's ASTOUNDING how often there's nothing but total garbage on all 8, and I'm a guy whose standards are not particularly high. But when most of the stations have undisputed 1-star crapfests, that's a problem. If they want to try to get a premium for selling their 2nd-tier stuff on iTunes, that's OK by me, but I don't feel the rush.

Posted by: TMU | May 13, 2008 2:43 PM | Report abuse

HBO continues the US TV Networks' practice of ignoring a very significant market: expats. An American living abroad, I rely on iTunes and other online means of keeping up with my favorite shows (which are broadcast overseas but delayed by a season or more, and often dubbed). Too bad HBO does not want to sell me "Entourage", and the other networks block access to their (free) online content from outside the USA.

Posted by: Matthew Dwyer | May 14, 2008 7:02 AM | Report abuse


First off, I enjoy your columns and look forward to them every week.

Now to business, HBO is simply afraid that, if they post their latest content, someone will find a way to hack the DRM or whatever security might be in place and people won't be tempted to buy the DVDs of the shows that we all see in places like BB and CC. This is evident in the fact that, prior to last episode of "The Wire," HBO OnDemand was not allowed to air it a week in advance as it normally did.

By the same token, they probably don't see a whole lot of revenue coming their way by doing "one-off" downloads through iTunes of their latest shows. I am not saying that there wouldn't be a whole lot of revenue generated, but they probably believe that the opportunity for piracy--therefore, undercutting their income--is so great that it's not worth the risk.

HBO appears to be operating in the inverse to that famous quote from "Field Of Dreams" where iTunes or any video download sites are concerned:

"If you don't put it online, they can't pirate it."

Posted by: graphixgeek | May 14, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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