Take That, Apple, Amazon, and TiVo

That darn peacock is just giving itself away on the Internet.

Less than three weeks after bolting from Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iTunes video store, NBC is launching its own model to get its prime-time and late-night shows distributed online. NBC Direct should launch next month, and it will offer free, ad-supported rentals of fresh episodes as an alternative to buying them outright through NBC Universal's new deal with Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) Unbox service.

Yes, these are rentals. The digital files will disappear like a bad midseason replacement within seven days of the initial download. However, you can't beat the price. In a single shot, General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) majority-owned NBC Universal is tripping up Apple, Amazon, and TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) .

Hit on Apple
Apple? Well, NBC accounted for nearly a third of the television shows sold through Apple. Now NBC is giving them away -- albeit wrapped around a ticking clock -- for free.

The move also throws into question the value proposition of the rest of the shows that Apple is selling. Sure, NBC isn't the first network to begin offering ad-supported shows as online freebies. Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ABC has been streaming hit shows including Lost and Desperate Housewives since last year through its own website. That hasn't held Apple back. However, this is yet another network giving away its content, and this time it's in the form of an actual PC download.

Hit on Amazon
Amazon? It figured it would be the place to go to buy those $1.99 episodes of Heroes, 30 Rock, and The Office. It still is, but now it has to deal with a chunk of that audience that will instead be perfectly content to replace that urge with owning an ad-supported version for a week.

OK, so maybe we knew that Amazon would never be the hub of all things NBC. The network and Fox are now just weeks away from launching Hulu, a video-streaming site that will specialize in network content. Still, it didn't seem as if the Unbox deal would start feeling so petty, so soon.

NBC and Apple split over pricing flexibility. NBC argued that it wanted the ability to bundle content. Apple countered by arguing that NBC wanted wholesale pricing hikes that would have forced it to sell NBC television show episodes at a mind-boggling $4.99 a pop. We'll never know who was telling the truth. Maybe they both were. However, the launch of NBC Direct hints that the network may not be as preoccupied with pricing as Apple would have many believe.

Hit on TiVo
TiVo? Sure. The great thing about Unbox is that Amazon shoppers can have online rentals and purchases beamed directly into their TiVo boxes. It's seamless. It works. You can even order shows right from your living room couch with your TiVo remote.

By weakening Unbox, NBC Direct weakens TiVo. That's not all, though. Time-shifting television -- through which consumers can watch their favorite shows on their terms -- is the main reason why TV buffs buy digital video recorders like TiVo. NBC and ABC are now giving viewers timing flexibility through on-demand Web streams.

It gets even worse for TiVo. In a PaidContent.org interview, NBC Digital Entertainment Executive Vice President Vivi Zigler revealed that one of the NBC Direct features is the ability to create a season pass for your favorite NBC show. Like clockwork, new episodes will be downloaded to your computer the morning after they air on NBC.

Season passes are another TiVo selling point, essentially doing the same thing that NBC is planning. Again, these are PC-tethered rentals that go poof in seven days. TiVo still offers the couch potato the luxury of TV viewing and keeping recorded shows for as long as they would like. Still, it's another shot at the DVR industry.

Required viewing for investors
If you happen to own Apple, Amazon, or TiVo, this isn't a "bring out yer dead" kettle call. NBC Direct may only appeal to a niche PC-glued crowd. It may even be an incremental audience, slowly drawn into online delivery and ultimately won over by premium ownership services.

However, watch each company carefully over the next couple of quarters. The networks are just kicking off their new fall seasons, and they are obviously more daring in their ways to reach viewers than they were just a year ago.

Ostriches may bury their heads in the sand, but peacocks -- especially the NBC peacock -- do not. The times are changing -- no, shifting -- and you don't want to be left behind.


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