Suppose you have been told “The Wire is the best serial fiction on any medium in the decade” which is (to be clear) not a claim that I am making but a claim I would like to investigate.
My first stop to consume an episode with lofty expectations is iTunes, which will let me pull down an episode for a mere $1.99. Not bad for one episode, but if the series lives up to the grand expectations, I will in fact be blowing $25-ish dollars per season for five seasons. Perhaps $125 is an entirely reasonable price point for 5 whole seasons of content, but I’m borderline about this whole TV thing–shouldn’t I be coding or something instead? And The Wire is a very special case on iTunes, for most “popular” primetime shows, you’re looking at $50-60 for a prime-time season of a single show, or $3 per episode, which seems insanely high to me. I would imagine that buying 3-5 shows would be competitive with a person’s cable bill during the same period, which seems silly to me (so much for cutting the cord…) Granted, it’s advertising-free, but it still seems insane.
Amazon Instant has a much more reasonable $1.39 per episode for The Wire, for a total damage closer to $90 for five seasons. Their primetime coverage is a lot more win too, netting a very competitive $1.99 per episode of most primetime TV (a full 33% off iTunes). However, Amazon has epic fail for supporting my iOS devices (the only device I have that works with Amazon Instant is my Mac, and only for streaming online, no downloads). I like to keep distracting stuff off my work computers, so it’s just not very convenient.
It turns out that HBO, the distributor for The Wire, has a great cross-platform streaming site that in fact supports iOS! Hurray! Please take my money! Well, no. I can sign up through my cable company, if I have HBO on some traditional TV cableish service, but not as an individual. We can’t run the risk of letting our streaming service cannibalize the bread-and-butter of the business. And even if I did subscribe to HBO, which is patently absurd, my cable provider isn’t even on the list of “supported partners.” So although HBO has this (presumably) nice streaming service set up, it is actually impossible for me to write a check to anyone for any amount of money and use it to stream The Wire. Nice work, guys.
It turns out that I can get five seasons of the Wire delivered to my house for $63 from (guess who) Amazon, a full 30% off Amazon Instant Video or a whopping 50% off iTunes’ price. Sure, I have to rip the DVDs myself with Handbrake, and stream them to my iPad with AirVideo, but it’s infinitely better than dealing with the DRM minefield of these other services. And you read that right: Amazon, the brown-uniform-guy-drives-a-package-to-your-house company, beats Amazon, the bits-on-a-fiber-cable-to-your-computer-monitor company. I think the UPS guys must pay to come to work.
Of course, that takes like a week shipping delay, plus CPU time, and I don’t care enough to actually take any action, because I should really be doing something productive instead. After 30 minutes of clicking around researching this, I realize it’s time to open XCode again.
I understand why this is, of course–complex licensing and pure greed. But while they’re busy trying desperately to squeeze the last drop of value out of the rag, my attention has already shifted. I can’t be alone in this–TV competes not just with XCode in my one apartment, but with people all over the world with Facebook, E-mail, iOS/console/PC games, easily-downloadable music, easily-downloadable/Redboxable/Streamable movies, Reddit, and a litany of other things way too long to list. On the whole, TV seems to be competing rather poorly in the market of attention, and is symptomatically in much more trouble than other “troubled” industries like music and news.