Why Content is the Biggest Roadblock for Apple TV

on August 30, 2011

It appears as though the “Apple is making a TV” discussion is coming back around. Probably because of rumor reports that “sources in the know” are talking about a brand new product category.

Apple has a hobby business in a product called Apple TV. At some point in time this hobby will become a business, the question is when. The other question is will it be in the form of a full blown television? Will it simply be a set top box? Or perhaps will the iMac become a 40′ or larger monitor /TV?

These are all interesting questions and I can see good arguments for and against all of them. However the real issue as I see it is the content industry.

Problem #1 Hollywood
What many people don’t know is that Hollywood is nearly impossible to deal with. Unlike the record labels whose business is more distrubution, the movie studios and TV networks prefer controlled distrubution. Both the TV studios and the movie studios carefully control when, where and how their content is distrubuted.

They have exceptionally strong legal rights to their content and because of that they are in the driver seat. Take for example Starz, HBO and Showtime.

If you have ever wondered why there is no digital “subscription” service for first release titles of movies it is because Starz, HBO and Showtime own the rights to first run movies as a subscription service. This is why as a part of their subscription services comapnies like Netflix, Apple, Amazon etc can not offer a digital download or streaming subscription service which includes new releases on DVD.

This is why the only options to date to get a first release on DVD digitally is to buy it or rent it.

For any company to offer a subscription service to download or stream new release movies they would have to get HBO, Starz and Showtime on board, not to mention the studios, who I think have more lawyers than employees.

This is why in 2006 Starz tried to launch Vongo.com their attempt at a movie subscription service. The challenge with Vongo was that it didn’t have movies newer than 6-8 months depending on the studio.

The primary reason for this is because the studios want people to go buy DVD’s not subscribe to a service for the cost of a DVD that allows them to stream it as many times as they want. Because of that only the premium pay-per-view model is available for a movie in digital form until it has been on DVD for at least 6-8 months. So all though Starz, HBO and Showtime on the rights to a subscription movie service they studios don’t give them those movies until 6-8 month’s after it has come out on DVD.

Historically Blockbuster and now Netflix and Redbox get away with offering a subscription service for physical DVD’s because of copyright laws. Legally anyone can pay full price for a DVD and sell or rent that DVD at whatever price they can fetch. Unfortunaly digital copyright laws work differently.

Hollywood tighlty controls their first tier window of physical and digital DVD distribution and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The fact of the matter is the purchasing of DVD’s is what they want people to do and they will protect that business to all ends.

To make a long story short, it would take a miracle for us to see a subscription service to stream new release DVD’s.

Problem #2 Comcast, Dish, DirecTV and others
What about a service to subscribe to network TV shows? We do this already since we pay a fee do Comcast, Dish, Time Warner, DirecTV or someone else. So it would seem logical to assume someone can offer something similar through the Internet.

The only problem is those above service providers pay hundred’s of millions of dollars for the rights to offer that content as a subscription service. The reason we get 100’s of channels for a fee each month is because hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to reserve the right to distrubute that content.

Put yourselves in the shoes of ABC, NBC, CBS etc. They get massive amounts of money up front for their programming. Do you think they are going to jeapordize that by letting people stream or access their content for free or cheap?

Although some networks today allow next day viewing for free with mandatory ads I am betting that at some point in time that model changes as well. What’s more is that even though supporting free streaming by ads is a business model, it comes no where close to hundreds of millions of dollars up front.

Hulu is in fact already experimenting with only allowing people to watch a show online the next morning if a fee is paid then anyone can watch it after seven days with ads.

I would expect in the near future if you want to stream a show for free online you will need to wait at least a week after it has first run. This will instantly kill any chance at the water cooler affect of a show and most likely discourage online streaming all together.

If you add up all the business model issues facing any company who hopes to offer or disrupt the current TV ecosystem it amounts to a monumental challenge.

The bottom line is the biggest hurdle for Apple to make Apple TV a business is not a technical one, it is a legal one.

I completely agree that the televion will someday become the next big platform to deliver rich content and services to and that it NEEDS to be disrupted in a major way.

But to quote a friend of mine who is a Hollywood lawyer:

“Two things drive Hollywood – fear and greed.”

I’m not optimistic that either of those forces will work in the technology industries favor.