A man scratching his headI didn’t really mean to make the topic of downloadable TV, or TV On-Demand, a theme for the week, but after reading a few announcements today I felt a few words were in order. Today CBS and NBC made two big announcements regarding providing content from their network in an On-Demand model. This of course comes on the heals of the ABC deal with iTunes, but it differs from that arrangement pretty significantly. Instead of just jumping on the bandwagon and signing up with iTunes, CBS and NBC are both using a model of using a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) to receive their programming. So instead of using your computer, you use a DVR directly connected to your television.

So how is this different? Well, with this model, you would have a dedicated device connected to your television that would then communicate with your television provider to receive the content. Once received and purchased, you could then hit a button on your remote and watch the program. With the iTunes model, you can easily download the content, but you have the hurdle of getting it to your television. With a DVR that hurdle doesn’t exist. Sounds like an easier solution then, right? Well, it is and it isn’t.

Problem #1 – Content Is Carrier Specific
NBC has partnered with DirecTV and CBS has partnered with Comcast. So unless you’re very loyal to only one broadcaster, you’re going to have to choose which content you would prefer to download and pay for. In most cases, you’re already subscribing to either DirecTV or Comcast, so it’s really just a matter of new features being offered, but if you’re a DirecTV user and love certain shows on CBS, you’re out of luck.

Problem #2 – You Need New Hardware
If you already have a DVR, like a Tivo, then too bad because you’re going to have to buy another device in order to receive this service. I’m sure that there will be plenty of mail-in rebates to make the device free, or low cost, and who doesn’t enjoy mail-in rebates? If you don’t currently own a DVR, this may be the push you need to get one, but that raises and interesting quandry…

Problem #3 – You Don’t Record The Show
This is one of the more perplexing issues to me. If you have a DVR, then why do you need to purchase the content? Why not just record it when it airs. The primary reason for getting a DVR is that it makes recording all your favorite content so easy. In fact, it’s the ONLY reason to own a DVR, so if you have one and it’s recording your favorite shows, why would then pay the network for the content the next day? This makes about as much sense to as buying gas for your electric car.

Problem #4 – You Don’t Own The Content
OK, so technically you don’t “own” television content, it’s licensed to you and all that jazz. Whatever. To the average Joe, when you pay for something you own it. Call it what you will, but consumers expect to be able to have some freedom in the products and services that they purchase. So when I read the following from this Salt Lake Tribute article, I was a little taken a back

Both services will charge 99 cents per show, which will be shown commercial-free. The episodes would be available just an hour or two after they air on regular TV. In most cases, shows would be available for a week and then taken down when new episodes air.

Does this mean that the networks would delete the program you purchased? Or, does it mean that you’ll only have a week or two in order to make the purchase? The geekset over at Slashdot seem to feel that it’s video with an expiration date, but whatever the case, none of it sounds good.

So What Does This All Mean?
I guess that all depends on your frame of reference. If you don’t have a computer, or don’t like the idea of TV on your computer, then I guess the CBS/NBC deals sound like a good thing. They’re TV-centric so it would seem like it’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the CBS/NBC deals don’t seem to have sure footing – there are simply too many hurdles to contend with. With having to buy equipment, deal with mail-in rebates and then only have the content semi-permanent seems like too much work. Too many hurdles to overcome.

Using iTunes is twice as expensive ($1.99 vs. .99), but it allows me access to content any time I want and then view it as I see fit. Sure, I still have a hurdle of getting it on my TV, but that’s the only hurdle I have to contend with and I don’t think that will last much longer. It’s already expected that a new Mac mini will be unveiled in January and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s designed to hook up directly to your TV. Once that hurdle is gone, there I see no compelling reason to choose the CBS/NBC model.

Ultimately what makes the iTunes model so much more appealing is the freedom it provides. Freedom to download when I want to and the ability to watch when I want to, and as long as I want to. Additionally, I don’t have to rely on my television service to provide the content, nor do I have to buy any additional hardware in order to access it.

I am happy to see that CBS and NBC are making steps, even if they’re the wrong ones. In time I’m sure things will evolve so that the process is easier and and more convenient. For now however, it certainly feels like one step forward and two steps back for NBC and CBS.