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Will Downloads Kill TV DVD?

27 Feb, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf

The list of TV shows available for download on iTunes continues to grow, and more DVD product is going head-to-head with episode bundles on the download service.

But DVD suppliers increasingly view the downloadable offerings for computers and portable media devices as more symbiotic than cannibalistic of TV's DVD aftermarket.

Showtime Entertainment recently made “Sleeper Cell” and the Golden Globe Award-winning “Weeds” available for iTunes download. Sleeper Cell: Season One ($34.99) streets March 14 on DVD, and iTunes has five episodes of the 10-episode series available individually or for $9.99 in a bundle. A street date for a DVD set of “Weeds” has yet to be announced, but the complete 10-episode run of “Weeds” — recently picked up for a second season — is on iTunes for $19.90, or $1.99 per episode.

These two shows were the first to be available on iTunes before any related DVD has hit the market. All other offerings on the site had some kind of DVD release pre-dating an iTunes deal.

David Bowers, VP of marketing for Showtime, said offering any series on iTunes is a “home run” because it broadens the consumer base.

“We believe that once the consumer samples the series, they will be more inclined to buy the complete series on DVD,” Bowers said. “It is the first time we have been able to sample our shows with the consumer without incurring huge costs for marketing.”

Links to iTunes are included on both of the shows' network-sponsored Web sites.

Showtime also put on iTunes the first season of “Fat Actress,” which already is available on DVD.

MTV Networks released a collection of its most popular programming to Apple. Some downloads line up with recent DVD releases of “Laguna Beach” and “Punk'd.” Other content from MTV Networks' Comedy Central is older. For example, only seasons one and two of “South Park” are for sale on iTunes. The corresponding DVD sets have been out for several years.

The relationship between iTunes and DVD has to remain fluid as suppliers test strategies, said Jeff Yapp, EVP of program enterprises for MTV, MTV2, MTV, U, VH-1, CMT and Logo.

“The way we are using it, we think the two will work beautifully together,” Yapp said. “If used right, it can be a great promotional tool.”

MTV is going to be careful about what they put on iPod, though, working to ensure downloads are “additive rather than cannibalistic,” he said.

The good news is, “DVD is always going to have deeper content,” Yapp said. But the iTunes relationship creates another opportunity for fans to “interact with the brand.”

Most importantly, just as complete-season sets did, iTunes has opened consumers' minds to a whole new kind of expenditure, industry watchers said.

“TV has always been perceived as free,” said Eric Garland, CEO of Internet research firm Big Champagne. “Even if you have cable, when you watch programming, you are not consciously aware of outlaying cash for that experience. Yet, we put that content on iTunes for $2, and there is a perceived value.”

iTunes also has created a perceived value for short programming, such as “Saturday Night Live” skits, which Lionsgate releases on DVD. iTunes users, however, have posted complaints online that the blanket $1.99 pricing for a 5-to-10-minute comedy skit is too much when, for the same price, they can get a 40-minute episode of “Lost.”

Still, Kajsa Vikman, executive director of marketing for Lionsgate, said the iTunes downloads could serve as a catalyst, almost an infomercial for a future DVD boxed set.“People buy DVD sets to own them and watch them repeatedly,” she said. “The episodic downloads don't give that same experience. [But] consumers might download an episode and get hooked on the show and boxed sets.”

Indeed, with February network sweeps in full swing and the network lineups hitting the halfway mark of the season, iTunes began offering discount package downloads of the first half of current seasons of such shows as “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “The Office.”

Additional reporting by Erik Gruenwedel

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