In Depth

End of the iTunes (TV) Era

Sure, iTunes was instrumental in singlehandedly unleashing the digital video revolution in 2005 when Disney inked the deal with Apple. For the first time, TV shows really were freed from the TV set.

But consider the numbers since then. Two and a half years later, iTunes has only sold 125 million episodes of TV shows on its service. That’s it. Just 125 million episodes at about $1.99 a pop, so $250 million.

Meanwhile, iTunes has peddled music prolifically to the tune of more than 4 billion songs. So iTunes isn’t going away, that’s for sure.

Time will tell if the AppleTV can invigorate iTunes TV sales, but until the device comes with a QWERTY keyboard. My bet is we won’t be ditching our cable subscriptions anytime soon.

But iTunes for TV seems like a thing of the past, almost a relic now of the initial Web-video frenzy. To understand why, let’s put that 125-million-shows-in-two-and-a-half-years figure in perspective: In the month of February alone, the Web sites of the five broadcast networks delivered 120 million combined video streams, according to Nielsen Online. The vast majority of those streams are for full episodes of TV shows.

And that’s not counting full episodes steamed on sites like Hulu, which served nearly 16 million streams in March. Nor does that count full episode streams of cable shows for networks like Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, which all do a brisk business in online streaming of their shows.

I’ll concede that iTunes is doing OK when it comes to free shows. iTunes said that users have subscribed to podcasts, both audio and video, about 200 million times. Those subscriptions can encompass any number of individual downloads. So if you subscribed to “MacBreak” and watched 40 episodes it would still count as one subscription.

But the TV figures make me believe the era of downloads, not just on iTunes, but on Joost and Amazon UnBox and other services is far behind us. Streaming is just a better business proposition for consumers and content providers.

Time will tell if the AppleTV can invigorate iTunes TV sales, but until the device comes with a QWERTY keyboard, my bet is we won’t be ditching our cable subscriptions anytime soon.

So if you’re wondering how hard NBC is working to get back on iTunes after ditching the service last fall, my bet would be not too hard. Because NBC didn’t really lose much when it said sayonara. More so, it didn’t stand to gain much either by sticking around.