iPod’s Cool, But Bigger’s Better

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Now that I’ve purchased Apple Computer Inc.’s powerful video iPod, I’ve tried to imagine the most ideal situation to watch television shows on a 2.5-inch-wide screen.

Riding the bus home after a hard day at work? Waiting to get my car registration renewed at the department of motor vehicles? Hiding behind the pinball machine during my 6-year-old daughter’s-friend’s-sister’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s?

With The Walt Disney Co. making available episodes of Desperate Housewives and other popular ABC primetime shows for a new iteration of Apple’s popular MP3 player, I can now watch episodes of ABC’s recently cancelled supernatural skein Night Stalker while taking out the garbage.

Disney is betting that fans of Lost — this generation’s Gilligan’s Island on steroids — who missed last Wednesday’s episode will pay $1.99 at midnight Thursday morning, download it to their iPods and watch it on the subway to work so that they can join the workplace chatter about the show.

Disney might be right. AP recently reported that Lost thus far is out iPod-ing the sultry Housewives. More important for Disney, Apple has sold more than a million copies of ABC shows in a month, according to AP.

That was $2 million worth of change. But that was before TiVo decided to allow subscribers to its digital recording service to transfer broadcast and cable TV programs directly to video iPods or Sony Corp.’s portable game device, the PSP.

That arrangement could severely test the economic viability of Apple and Disney’s pay-to-own model. For some 300,000 TiVoToGo subscribers, the convenience of buying each individual episode might not be worth the expense when they can record each show, transfer it to a computer and download it to a video iPod for free.

Free or not, viewing a one-hour show on a screen slightly bigger than a matchbox doesn’t quite capture my imagination. If I want desperately to see Eva Longoria saunter across a video screen, you best believe it would be on the biggest, brightest, highest-pixelized platform possible.

That’s not to slam the iPod. The picture is incredibly clear and sharp, despite its size. As expected from a quality digital-music player, the sound is majestic.

But there’s still something to be said about the unassuming, couch-potato experience of watching television on a 40-inch flat screen. It’s a bit unnatural to recline in your favorite chair with a handful of popcorn in one hand and your TV set in the other.

Plus, with three digital video recorders in the house, I can virtually record every episode of my favorite shows, as well as those of my wife, daughters, parents, uncle’s and next-door neighbor.

That’s one reason I’m not overly optimistic about the high revenue potential of the Disney-Apple model or any of the other new pay-per-view programming offers by the broadcast networks.

CBS’s deal with Comcast Corp. to offer on demand episodes from such shows as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NCIS for 99 cents appeals mostly to people who don’t already own digital video recorders. For the 8 million of us who do, how many times would someone pay to see a missed Survivor episode before they push a button or two to make sure they don’t miss any ever again?

The pay-for-play concept is even more curious in the case of NBC Universal and DirecTV. Consumers have to have a DirecTV-issued DVR and pay 99 cents to receive an episode of USA’s Monk or NBC’s Las Vegas, hours after the show airs. Unless you’re a relative of the absent-minded Gomer Pyle or can’t program a DVR, why would you continually pay to download programming to a device that can automatically record those same shows for free?

Despite the TiVo-Apple deal, a pay-for-play model can work as long as consumers don’t feel like they’re being nickel and dimed to watch television.

It’s uncertain whether the television industry can adapt the pay-per-song model that’s worked so successfully for the music industry. There’s a world of difference between paying 99 cents for a song that doesn’t lose its entertainment value over numerous plays, versus dishing out $1.99 for a whodunit episode that loses its appeal the first time the culprit is revealed.

Networks are finally realizing that people are watching television differently than they did 50 years or even 10 years ago. Whether you’re downloading NBCU’s Jerry Springer: Uncensored episodes via peer-to-peer Internet provider Wurld Media or Nickelodeon’s Spongebob SquarePants episodes onto Hasbro’s new kids-targeted Vugo portable media player, consumers now control their use of digital media.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my iPod and I have a date with the ladies on Wisteria Lane. I hope I haven’t missed the bus home.

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