The NBC programming that went missing from iTunes last December has finally turned up in the Zune marketplace. Fans of The Office, Heroes, and 30 Rock can once again pay to download episodes of their favorite programs — provided they own a Zune and a Windows PC.
Given the Zune’s miniscule market share it’s curious to see any network choosing Microsoft’s media platform over iTunes for paid downloads. When NBC pulled its programming from iTunes, network officials sniffed at the relatively small sales the Apple service had generated. By comparison, sales in the Zune marketplace are bound to redefine the term “nano”.
Clearly this move isn’t about selling digital content online. NBC seems to be more interested in punishing Apple for exercising control over iTunes pricing than it is in actually expanding the market for legal downloads.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft is all too willing to play by the network’s rules. According to an article in yesterday’s NY Times, NBC’s president of digital distribution J. B. Perrette indicated that Microsoft is giving the network exactly what Apple wouldn’t. Specifically, control over pricing and a promise to build content filtering into future versions of the Zune software.
Strangely, NBC has decided to exercise its new found control over pricing by charging $1.99 per download — exactly the same price episodes sold for on iTunes just a few months back. So much for control over pricing.
Maybe this is all about the idea of content filtering. NBC and others have complained that Apple isn’t doing enough to prevent piracy. As if building the world’s most popular platform for legal digital content distribution isn’t enough.
According to Perrette, the plan is to create “filtering technology that allows for playback of legitimately purchased content versus non-legitimately purchased content.” In other words, in the future, Zune’s might only play DRM protected content that’s been purchased through Microsoft’s Zune marketplace.
To be fair, Microsoft’s Zune Insider has denied that the company has plans to build content filtering into the Zune. Still, given Microsoft’s history of giving the entertainment industry exactly what it wants — the $1 per Zune surcharge and Zune’s 3×3 WiFi sharing limitations — it’s not hard to imagine that a future Zune firmware upgrade might add a new “feature” that prevents playback of unauthorized content.
The problem, of course, is that consumers who purchase physical media have a right to transform that media into a digital format — regardless of what the RIAA, MPAA, or anyone else might imply. How exactly will the built-in Zune filtering system tell the difference between copyright infringement and fair use?
Hollywood loves this move. It’s one of those ideas that must sounds great in a board meeting. “Hey, why don’t we just stop piracy by preventing portable media players from playing unauthorized content?” In reality, this is yet another consumer hostile move that has no chance of actually working.
If NBC is really interested in expanding the market for legal downloads it would be selling programming through every available service and letting consumers make their own choices. That’s how a marketplace for digital content will ultimately be created. Anything less will only invite more piracy. Or worse yet, apathy as consumers give up on network programming and move on to more readily available entertainment from other sources.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch NBC programming with minimal commercial interruption on Hulu. Which is strange, because I’ve actually reached a point in my life where I might consider buying episodes of The Office through iTunes.
Like I said, NBC’s moves obviously aren’t motivated by a desire to sell more digital content.