I still want my HBO

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Previously… on the Editors’ Notes weblog : I waxed hopefully about the rumors that HBO programming might find its way onto the iTunes Music Store, but fretted that the pay-cable channel’s subscription-based revenue stream might scotch the deal. Many people speculated that my fears were unfounded. But, really, all any of us could do was to sit around and wait for a pay-cable channel to go ahead and make its wares available for download from iTunes.

Which is what happened Tuesday when Showtime added three of its programs to the iTunes Music Store roster.

This Apple-Showtime agreement is a significant one, and not just because it adds to Kirstie Alley’s income stream. Rather, I take it as a sign that the iTunes Music Store is attractive territory for any broadcaster, whether they reside on the VHF portion of your dial or in the upper three-digital reaches of your cable box.

Up until now, the broadcasters doing business with Apple either air their shows for free (ABC and NBC) or as part of some basic cable package (Disney Channel, USA, ESPN, and so forth). The Showtime shows are the first to come from a network that explicitly charges its viewers a monthly subscription fee. More significantly, the Showtime shows will appear on the iTunes Music Store in the same manner as their free-TV counterparts—in other words, episodes of Sleeper Cell will be available for download the day after they air on Showtime, just like Lost pops up at the store after its ABC broadcast. That would seem to suggest that my original concern—that pay-TV channels would resist the lure of iTunes for fear of cannibalizing their existing audience—has been proved baseless.

Of course, as a Romantic Era poet once observed, “Showtime is not HBO.” In the pay-cable world, Showtime is Art Garfunkel to HBO’s Paul Simon—perfectly acceptable on its own merits, but not nearly as popular or accomplished as the other one. (Drawing out this analogy to its logical conclusion, I guess that would make Cinemax a particularly lurid groupie.) Since HBO has a subscriber base and cachet that Showtime can only dream of, the latter network may be more willing to do the sorts of things that get its programs more in the public eye—including making them available for $1.99 each at a wildly popular online music store. What makes sense for Showtime does not necessarily make sense for HBO.

Still, I’m confident that HBO programming will find its way into my iTunes shopping cart sooner rather than later. The network claims to be interested in such an arrangement. Apple certainly doesn’t appear satisfied to rest on its laurels. And the momentum seems to favor more programs from more broadcasters arriving at the iTunes Music Store, not less. I may just get those Wire episode downloads— and that lower cable bill—I’ve been dreaming of yet.

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