(Originally started in December 2006)
My wife and I don't watch much TV, primarily because we cancelled our TV cable subscription several years ago. While we are both fans of science fiction shows there simple was too much junk on aside from two or three shows to spend upwards of $60 each month, and we also wanted to move towards more constructive ways of spending our time. However, there are still those one or two shows we really enjoy and wish to keep up with, without having to wait a year or more for the episodes to be released on DVD. Enter what is currently IMHO the best alternative solution to our predicament - iTunes!
Although originally released as a music-only platform, iTunes has expanded to cover an array of additional media, starting with podcasts and audio books, and more recently to music videos, TV shows and full movies. When the TV show and music video support was originally launched in late 2005 I was not overly keen, primarily because the size of the video was a pokey-small 320x240. This screen size is less than quarter of DVDs, so a video playing in full-screen looked pretty bad, at times worse than an old VHS tape, which wasn't worth it to me.
It took almost a year, but the day finally arrived that I was eagerly awaiting - Apple announced that from September 12th, 2006, all video downloads would be at the much improved 640x480 size, equivalent to the venerable VGA computer monitor resolution of yore and just a smidgin under full DVD size. In addition, over the summer several new TV shows were added to their lineup, including two of the main shows we were interested in obtaining - the SciFi channel's Stargate SG1 and Battlestar Galactica (yes, we're geeks). As a gift to my wife we splurged on a season pass to SG1 for $38 while I'll be picking up BSG weekly for $2, which works out to be less than $8 per month for TV shows ($38 + 20x$2 = $88 / 12 = $7.50) versus the almost $60 for the comparable cable service, so its worth it for us.
After watching several episodes in this new format I have to say that on the whole it is a great way to obtain media you can't otherwise. One thing I can see lots of people using it for is if they are following a show on TV but miss an episode, $2 gives them a chance to catch it later, regardless of any rerun schedule. It is also a great way to try out new shows - for less than the price of a decent coffee you can view an episode of any show available to see if you might like it. Lastly, the obvious market is for people, like my wife and I, who don't pay for a cable or satellite TV service but still wish to follow shows as they happen rather than a year down the road.
Along with the chance to buy TV shows, there are a few other tidbits worth mentioning to pique your interest. Firstly, every week Apple gives away some content via the iTunes Store - a few songs and a few TV episodes. What I've enjoyed seeing is the pilot episodes of some shows getting posted for free, giving you a chance to see what a brand new TV show is like while it is fresh on the market.
The second item worth considering is that Apple also makes full movies available through their service. For a price between $10 and $15 you can download a full length movie to view any time on your computer - no discs required. This may not seem like a great deal when you compare the price against buying a discounted movie via Amazon or a brick-n-mortar discount store, but it could be useful to e.g. build up a library of kid/family-friendly entertainment that you can allow your children to watch whenever they like; couple that with the "allowance" system that the iTunes store has, and parent controls on access to content based on the standard movie ratings, this could be useful for many parents.
Lastly, it does have to be mentioned that you can view the content at any time you like. You are no longer at the mercy of when the TV stations decide that your favorite show should be aired, and you also no longer have to deal with the flaws associated with digital video records (DVRs), which have a tendency to be occasionally hit-or-miss with start/stop times. So, if you like you can queue up five hours of new Battlestar Gallactica episodes some night your newborn is having difficulty sleeping, or organize to have some friends over for a Supernatural party, or you could be really boring and watch that Disparate Housewives show.., that's your choice :-P
There are a few limitations which are a little frustrating. Firstly, there is no way to download a file multiple times without paying for it again. With technology the way it is, it is quite likely that you may some day need to re-download your files again, but Apple would prefer you not. Instead Apple recommends that you back up your downloaded files rather than relying upon them, which I can't really fault too much.
Secondly, TV shows and movies can't be burned to DVD to play in your living room or your portable players, you need either a video iPod to play portable or hook to your TV, or a laptop, and neither solution is particularly enticing. An obvious problem with playback on either laptops or on a desktop computer is the size of screen - most people have much smaller monitors than they do TV screens so the picture won't look as enticing. As for video iPods, those are stick stuck with tiny three inch screens and cost at least $250, which is pretty poor in comparison to the $80 portable DVD players on the market.
Thankfully Apple are well aware of these problems and so have released a set-top box, called the AppleTV, to connect to your TV to play any iTunes content directly from your computer through either a wired or wireless connection; though priced a little high at $300, it will give people an easier solution in their desire to view their paid-for content in their more comfortable living room setting. On the portable front I'm still holding out for an iPod with a larger screen, probably something with a six or seven inch screen, basically something that can be more easily placed on a shelf near the viewer (think: prop it in a cupboard while doing dishes) or propped up while lying in bed, without having to squint quite as much.
One final concern is the video size itself. The decision to go with 640x480 versus the only slightly higher 720x480 DVD resolution is curious. Almost all video content is sold on DVD at some point so the content providers (TV stations, movie companies) have to re-save a new version of their content, which may or may not be possible; it has been mentioned online that some content has been the older 320x240 sized up, which defeats the purpose entirely. Also, with the announcement that the set top box has HDMI connectors for connecting to HDTVs, the realization hits that none of the iTunes content will be available at a native HD resolution as the smallest HD size is 720x480 (same as DVD); this means that all iTunes content played through the set top box will be sized up, reducing the overall quality and, therefore, the value of buying content through this alternative means. My only guess as to why this happened is that the movie & TV studios were unwilling to allow Apple to encroach directly on "their" territories so denied them the right to use standard DVD or HD sizes. Here's hoping that Apple manages to push the movie & TV industry into doing the full resolution as it really makes no sense.
So, these issues aside, I personally think that, unless you happen to watch a great deal of TV and thus can warrant the expense of cable vs picking a few shows ad-hoc, iTunes is a great way to keep up with your favorite TV shows, and the new AppleTV will just make it even better.