iTunes subscribers finally get their answer

Apple this week offered some measure of satisfaction to iTunes Season Pass subscribers who’ve been affected by the Writers Guild of America strike. As we reported back in January, Season Pass subscribers who paid to download a full season’s worth of their favorite shows last fall found that the three-month-long writers strike had cut into the number of shows they were actually receiving. Say, you’re like my wife and you ponied up $39.99 at the start of the fall TV season for a full slate of Prison Break episodes. Well, because of the strike, Prison Break ended its season after 13 episodes—well short of the 22 to 23 episodes people were expecting when they agreed to that $39.99 fee.

Apple’s response, which came to light Tuesday, is to offer two free episodes to Season Pass subscribers as an apology for any inconvenience resulting from the strike. (The two-episode credit can be used to buy TV shows, music videos, or short films from the iTunes Store.) What’s more, Apple says it will credit the account of Season Pass subscribers for the number of unaired episodes caused by the strike. In the case of my wife’s Prison Break season pass, for example, that will wind up being credits for nine to 10 episodes, depending on who’s doing the counting.

It’s not Apple’s fault, of course, that the Writers Guild and TV producers found themselves locked in a lengthy contract dispute, but, nevertheless, the company’s customers were the ones were in a position to be short-changed. So Apple made a move to rectify things and perhaps even earn itself a little goodwill in the process. Apple’s response was smart, appropriate, and ultimately the right thing to do for iTunes customers.

It was also long overdue.

The writers began their strike November 5. And until Apple came forward with its two-episode-credit plan this past week, the company hadn’t uttered a peep to iTunes customers in any official, widespread way. Not when the strike began, not when the reservoir of original programming began to dry up around the start of the new year, not even when the strike ended in mid-February. And it’s not as if the company didn’t have ample opportunity to touch base with customers during those three months of self-imposed radio silence. When we ran our initial story back in January about the troubles facing Season Pass subscribers, we contacted Apple several times asking for a comment—the company did not return our calls.

True, it’s not as if Apple was in a position to definitively tell its customers what to expect while the strike was going on and the situation remained in flux. However, there was nothing stopping the company from at least notifying Season Pass subscribers that it was aware there was a problem and that it would have a solution once the strike was resolved. Indeed, in one of Apple’s few communications with users, subscribers to Multi-Passes for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report reported receiving e-mail notifications that their subscriptions would resume once new episodes of those shows appeared. So why couldn’t Apple have extended that courtesy to all iTunes subscribers?

Apple has a well-earned reputation for being tight-lipped about its plans and products. And it certainly has a right to be—if the company responded to every rumor about some new product reportedly in the works, it would spend hours on the phone each day shooting down speculation. There are also perfectly legitimate strategic and legal reasons for keeping mum about things like pending litigation or business decisions or fiscal targets.

But the silence over Season Passes affected by the writers strike wasn’t any of that. This was a situation where customers who had paid Apple in exchange for a service weren’t receiving what they paid for and might have appreciated some acknowledgment or information from the company. Apple didn’t see fit to provide them with any of that until it was darn good and ready.

I can’t say it any more plainly—that’s a disgraceful way to treat your customers.

Selling a recurring service like an iTunes subscription is a different kind of business than selling a computer or a piece of software—the relationship between the buyer and the seller doesn’t end once the transaction is completed. It’s an ongoing interaction that sometimes requires the seller to keep the subscriber informed of any changes, updates, or hiccups in the system. If Apple is going to continue involving itself in this kind of business—and the importance of iTunes content to devices like the iPod and the Apple TV suggest that it will—then the company needs to adjust how it interacts with customers in that business.

Free downloads and store credits are a nice gesture. Dropping the silent treatment act would be an even better one.

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