Those "digital pennies" Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, complained about some years ago? They still haven't changed into "digital nickels" or "digital dimes." The bottom line is that, as one executive says, it's all an experiment; everyone is still doing "R&D."
Perhaps that is too long a time for digital experimentation during anything called "the digital age."
It was fall 2005 was when we first heard the revolutionary news that Walt Disney Co. was offering its TV shows to be sold -- advertising-free -- on Apple's then-called iTunes Music Store. It's now five years later and everyone is still fooling around with formats: free, ad-supported; fee-based, commercial-free; VOD; and others.
A few months ago, the company that started it all, Apple, was talking up a cable-like monthly digital programming service -- a move that was seemingly pre-empted by the big three TV-media companies' Hulu digital service, where for $10 a month, you get an all-you-can-eat, fewer-commercials monthly plan for access to all TV series, past and present, with no time limitation.
Now Apple -- looking for another wrinkle in the testy world of video services -- is thinking price-sensitivity and flexibility: a one-time 99 cent "rental" fee for a commercial-free exclusive screening of a TV episode for 48 hours. Why? Perhaps the thinking is that we may not want every single episode of "The Good Wife" or "Law & Order: SVU" forever.
Much as it did in 2003, Apple's aim will be to talk up the fact that this won't result in "viewership erosion," and that it could be used for promotion of existing traditional TV viewing.
TV networks may say they want to be on every platform and device, in every type of service, no matter where their customers are. But not-so-secretly, they still seek that one golden digital platform offering substantial revenues, something that can complement or even replace the current traditional TV advertising model.
At the same time, TV networks have the compounded problem of making sure new technologies -- HDTV, 3D, or Internet-enabled TVs -- work to provide optimal advertising revenues.
Rental TV shows won't be the total answer. It's just another clumsy step toward a place where -- impossibly -- consumers, advertisers, and television executives are entertainingly, aesthetically, and financially happy, all at the same time.