The Public Broadcasting System became the latest television network to offer its TV shows for sale via the iTunes Store on Tuesday. That’s certainly news, though hardly a development of the earth-shaking variety—it seems like the roster of TV content available through iTunes grows by the week. What is interesting, however, is the price set for one of PBS’ iTunes offerings. Amid the standard $1.99 per episode costs for kids’ fare like Arthur and public television mainstays such as Antiques Roadshow is the pricing for the long-running science series Nova —$7.99 for each episode.
At first blush, that seems like a lot, especially when compared to other TV fare available at iTunes. Then again, Nova isn’t like most other TV fare. While you might want to download an episode or two of The Office for your next plane trip or get that Prison Break episode you missed when it aired on broadcast TV, you’re unlikely to approach Nova the same way. Rather, the intended audience would seem to be teachers looking for educational fare they can show in a classroom again and again. And $7.99 is a heck of a lot more attractive than the $19.95 you’d pay for a Nova DVD from the PBS online store. Plus, you get a digital file you simply store on your classroom computer for showings in perpetuity instead of a DVD you have to keep track of. In that context, $7.99 doesn’t seem too much to ask.
But I think the real story here is the flexibility Apple is showing with pricing iTunes content. When the online music service debuted in 2003, Apple took a very rigid stance on pricing—99 cents for individual songs and $9.99 (in all but a few cases) for entire albums. The same thing happened when TV shows were introduced to the store a year ago—every individual episode was slapped with a $1.99 price tag.
However, things have begun to change with pricing, with the shift becoming increasingly noticeable in recent weeks. The launch of a movie download service introduced a variety of pricing levels—$9.99 for older “Library” offerings, $14.99 for new releases, and $12.99 for those same new releases if you pre-order them or buy them within the first week of their release. That’s not exactly the most byzantine pricing structure, but it’s a far cry from the one-price-fits-all days of the early iTunes Store.
And I think that’s a good change, particularly if it helps Apple add a wider variety of content to iTunes. A few years ago, when iTunes was one of the few games in town, Apple could dictate more rigid pricing to its content suppliers. These days, there are more options, whether it’s competing services or TV networks just deciding to make streams of their shows (and the attendant commercials) free on their Web sites. If Apple wants the iTunes Store to keep enjoying a position of prominence—and I’m guessing that the company does—it’s going to have to constantly evolve. Right now, that means adapting its stance on pricing. And who knows? Maybe in the future, it means re-thinking the attitude toward movie rentals and subscription services.