A Breaking Fever: Apple, Lies and Videotape

| Editorial

The Apple TV has remained a hobby because Apple isn’t in the driver’s seat when it comes to delivering home video. Getting there will require more than the unique Apple vision. It’ll be a special blend of technology and psychology that will break our TV fever and deliver us from affliction.

It must be frustrating for Apple. Here’s a company that’s supremely good at dealing with the psychology of the customer, but it’s up against a brick wall when it comes to competing with cable and satellite.

Apple TV

To be sure, it’s clear now that customers will drop their cable or satellite subscription at the drop of the hat when offered a better alternative. Strong industry forces and an opposing psychology, however, work behind the scenes to slow down Apple’s efforts.

Human Psychology

TV viewers, whether they’re watching a TV series or a popular movie series, like Harry Potter, like coherence and continuity. For example, I have the first two Jason Bourne movies on DVD and the Bourne Ultimatum on Blu-ray. Most people in my position would love to re-purchase the first two movies on Blu-ray as well. The fact that most of us have ditched all our VHS tapes and perhaps even DVDs and converted to Blu-ray discs is a testament to that human need for modern, elegant, complete solutions. Studios depend on that psychology.

jason Bourne

Jason Bourne, credit: IMDB

The same goes for TV shows. Customers tend to be skeptical of TV shows. Often a favorite show goes on hiatus, because it’s not doing well, gets tweaked, then returns to an even smaller audience that has finally lost interest. For example, the ABC series V. As a result, many TV viewers, frequently burned, will buy a TV series only after a season is complete and watch it straight through, sans commercials. Few would relish the idea of purchasing a TV series piecemeal and remain content with a few missing episodes.

Recently, Apple suspended the rental of TV shows on Apple TV. What I think happend was that not enough of Apple’s customers were ready to lay out a continuous stream of money, each week, for a TV show that might be suspended at any time. Others, chastened by the fickle approach of the studios, would tune in from time to time, never being a consistent money maker for Fox. The grand experiment to fly in the face of known customer behavior, for the sake of some incremental revenue, failed.

And there we have the fundamental paradox of home TV viewing. The studios are all too willing to cash in on the psychology of their customers who want completeness, yet from time to time, for the sake of money and advertising, they will gladly, spontaneously burn the viewer, making them forever gun shy. If anything, the modern TV viewer has been trained to be cavalier and detached, akin to the feeling of being burned in love.  It’s that tendency by the TV industry to first exploit the customer desire for continuity and coherence, but then forsake that very strategy for short term gains that infuriates viewers. It’s like being in a prison camp: manipulated, deprived, insulted, victimized and left wondering what’s next. To add insult to injury, the cost of being a victim keeps rising.

The Apple Way

Nothing showcases the difference in thinking between Apple and TV studios and networks like a tour of the Apple customer household. In the den is, perhaps, an iMac with iTunes, lots of TV shows and music on the hard disk and hardly a DVD (and zero Blu-rays) in sight. In the living room is an HDTV, DVR, a Blu-ray player and lots of DVDs and Blu-ray discs, mixed and matched, in an incoherent scatter. Movies recorded on the DVR are locked inside, and despite the occasional industry rumblings, there’s no coherent, standard mechanism for watching those recordings any where one might please. It’s a mess.

In the den, there’s a consistency of vision. In the living room, there’s a mishmash of technologies caused by the customer trying to optimize, minimize cost, balance various technical elements, and keep from being burned. Purchasing rotating plastic is basically an insurance policy. As Murphy’s Law says, “…the organism will do as it damn well pleases.” In my case, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever buy the other Bourne movies on Blu-ray because I only watch the movies occasionally, and sinking funds into maniacal completeness on a dusty bookshelf is wasteful. One has to work hard to be in the right consumer frame of mind nowadays.

So that brings up the second problem. Myriads of different TV customers have different views and behaviors. Some fall head long in love with the TV experience and will do anything to feed their habits. They’re a good source of revenue. Other viewers are more cantankerous. They work on getting HDTV free over the air with a good antenna. They refuse to own a DVR and watch old movies on DVDs. There’s a wide variation in TV habits depending on how the customer’s personality affects their loyalty and spending. Any sufficiently complex system will result in wide variations in customer response, unpredictable behavior and the suppression of innovation.

That’s a situation ripe for disruption. If Apple can supply a consistency of vision and also appeal to customers who’ve grown weary and skeptical of the TV industry, the company will be wildly successful. As a result of that success, studio and hollywood executives will slowly draw the conclusion that they must cling to the coattails of the wealthiest corporation in the world. It’s that or go bankrupt.

As we know, the TV studios have been reluctant to do that because they’re terrified that Apple will control their fate and dictate terms, much as the fruity company has with the publishers on the iPad. Even so, the fact that the TV industry cannot and will not compete with itself signals an industry on the verge of a massive disruption.

Apple TV

Watch out when Apple gets it right

One day soon, Apple will put it all together. They’ll discover that magic psychological link that breaks through the weariness and skepticism — the feeling of being forever abused and manipulated. Apple’s ability to marry powerful technology with an optimistic, consistent vision will eventually break the ice for the majority of customers. Marry great software with vision and broadband, and things can happen fast. And then it’ll be game over.

That could be a reliable, eternal iCloud. It could be iTunes built into a high quality HDTV. It could be the introduction of iTunes, subscription funded TV series, not subject to cancellation. It could be an emerging appreciation of iPads and AirPlay as Apple comes to dominate the tablet industry. Toss in some things Apple hasn’t revealed. Maybe all of the above, mixed and matched until the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But you know it’s coming. It’ll be like a fever breaking. 


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In many ways, through my iMac (and iTunes), I’m there already. I buy, rent and watch all the movies I watch movies on it. I just bought Super (it was great) and then—based on Ellen Page’s performance in it—bought Juno. Both great films. iTunes also lets me find movie gems I’ve never heard of. I highly recommend Source Code as one such gem.

Then there are TV shows. A cold winter night in 2008 had me looking for something different to watch via—of course—iTunes. The pilot episode of Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles (TSCC) was available for free. So, given that the price was right (and despite low expectations), I gave it a chance, and was blown away. So I bought the second episode, and was again blown away. Especially by whoever was playing “protector” Terminator Cameron. So I watched the credits, and Googled Summer Glau. I then went back to iTunes—well past midnight—and downloaded the pilot of Firefly.

I watched four episodes that night, and the remaining 10 over the next several days. Given how short-lived Firefly was (let alone its episodes shown out of order), I never could have enjoyed it as much as I did via iTunes, had I been watching it on Fox.

The last time my television was on—no lie—was the Super Bowl, and given the performance of the Steelers that day, I should have just bought another movie on iTunes. I like knowing, as John said, that I can watch an entire TV show’s season without it being cancelled, and finding movies I’ve never heard of. iTunes built into a high quality HDTV? I’m already there on my iMac, and loving every minute of it.


Sports will be the key to making it work; live sports, local sports, or tape delayed. Lots of people who would have ditched cable and satellite long ago, won’t because there is no way to get live sports on the internet, unless you count watching it in crappy, buggy, little Flash streams in a corner of a window filled with ads. That’s the nut that needs cracking.


Speaking of psychology, here’s why I don’t like the Apple model: I don’t like paying for each and every thing I watch, especially when Netflix seems like such a better deal. Say I watch two shows a day. At 99 cents a show, that’s still $60 a month. Fuggetaboutit. Also with Apple’s rental model, you can’t start watching something, decide you don’t like it, and watch something else. You’ve already paid. This limits exploration. Apple was right about the fact that people want to own their music; Music subscription services have never really caught on. However the subscription model is what works best for video. Once you’re accustomed to paying your monthly fee, then it all seems free. You have the freedom to watch whatever you want without worrying about the cost. Until Apple comes to this realization Apple TV will never be more than small potatoes.


The fact that most of us have ditched all our VHS tapes and perhaps even DVDs and converted to Blu-ray discs is a testament to that human need for modern, elegant, complete solutions.

Speak for yourself. I didn’t and will not be buying Blu-Ray. I skipped it and went directly to digital download.

Customers tend to be skeptical of TV shows

Very true. I tend to not even bother with a new show until it goes into syndication. When I can be sure that there will be at least one or two complete seasons I take a look. Until then I watch LAST seasons shows that are on syndication.

I used to really get into series. The last time I really got into one that deeply was Babylon 5. Watching it was a weekly event in our house. Then they moved season 5, the payoff for the whole 5 year story arc, to a channel that wasn’t carried in our area. Then there was SportsNight. A slick, exceedingly well written series that died because the network didn’t get it. And of course Futurama that Fox decided to put on after football so it got bumped most weeks and then they started shifting it around. I watch series but keep in mind they might drop a character, rework the premise, or cancel it without notice because of what some focus group said.

No, the Networks, Cable Companies, and Studios are their own worst enemies. I seriously hope that you’re right about Apple being poised to disrupt and revolutionize this industry as well.

John Halbig

Regarding your idea of subscription based TV shows—as was recently pointed out to me, the current consumers of TV are *not* the TV viewers, but the ADVERTISERS. If they don’t get the eyeballs, even if the show is being watched by millions albeit timeshifted, the show dies on the vine.

Fox’s recent stupidity regarding Hulu emphasizes this: While convenient to the VIEWER, it impacts the “real” customer, so even though we could record it onto a DVR and STILL watch it sans commercials, they punish the “cord cutter”.

Crowd funded entertainment is the biggest threat to the entertainment monopolies—it will be intriguing to see if that takes off the way I expect it to in the next decade.

Ross Edwards

That could be a reliable, eternal iCloud.

That’s exactly what the endpoint is.  Just like on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  “Computer, play movie, Police Academy 15: Murder at Shady Oaks.  Enable 3-D viewing.”  And at the end of the month your credit tab is billed thirty spacebucks, regardless of how much content you did or didn’t consume.

/starring Steve Guttenberg as Mahoney


How about a tiered monthly fee for varying amount of programs that buys access to anything that is available? Couple that with an opt out in the first five or ten minutes of a movie. Sports? Sooner or later the different leagues will sign deals with someone to deliver their product over the internet. I’d buy a seasons pass to all Red Sox games. The key would be access at home or on the road. Local news stations could follow the same path as sports by forming networks to package over the net. Cable stations can do the same.

By the way, the last TV series that I followed was X Files. Outside of some sports and local news there isn’t much I want. Old movies and shows we want are reasonable through Netflix.


Of course with common bandwidth restrictions from the cable companies going full time online is a bit problematic.


” Movies recorded on the DVR are locked inside, and despite the occasional industry rumblings, there?s no coherent, standard mechanism for watching those recordings any where one might please. It?s a mess.”

I chose a DVR with a USB connection to an external HDD.  I can remove the HDD, connect it to my iMac and I use HandBrake to convert the .TS files to MP4. I then can watch those MP4 videos anywhere I please. The setup replaced a VHS recorder, works well and was the least-expensive solution to the problem of “home-videotaping” in the digital age.

As for movie rentals - discs in the mailbox works well and is cost-effective.

I hope when Apple does “put it all together” they do so in a way that satisfies their global customers (not just you guys in the US).


Apple will never be able to crack the TV nut until they ensure themselves a reliable and reliably priced network.  Otherwise they will be always at the mercy of the internet carriers who will tax away their profits just like MS does with Windows.  I wonder how much network $75 billion buys you.  I also just read somewhere that it costs about $10 Billion to build a nationwide wireless network.  Hmmm.


Given how short-lived Firefly was…

You just spoke of (in my opinion) one of the biggest travesties in the history of American television; Fox’s then-executives should be executed. And, the fact that after Joss Wedon dropped a hint about the REMOTE possibility of a follow-up to Serenity at a recent comicon the audience erupted with applause speaks volumes about the universe he created.

And of course, if you haven’t seen Serenity yet you don’t need me to tell you to check it out. smile


Very minor:  V was on ABC, not NBC.



You just spoke of (in my opinion) one of the biggest travesties in the history of American television….

I couldn’t agree more. During the three or four days I devoured the series, I was just in awe: The writing, the acting, the directing, the special effects. The characters…so real, so three-dimensional, and the story took place 500 years in the future and on a spaceship! And the stories could be at once laugh-out-loud funny (...or I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end you!—Mal), edge-of-your-seat suspenseful (Ariel…two by two, hands of blue….), heartwarming (the end of Out of Gas), and so emotionally heart-wrenching that I often had tears streaming down my face (River’s soliloquy in Objects in Space, especially, when she tells the crew she’s leaving).

It’s Whedon’s best work, ever, and I was a huge fan of Buffy (the TV show). And yes, right after I finished the final episode, I ordered the DVD of Serenity (which was not available on iTunes at the time). I was so in disbelief when Serenity was over—what, there’s no more of this story?—that I launched not one, but two websites in a desperate attempt to somehow get a Serenity sequel. Both are since broken, but I thought the best one was “Faces of Serenity.” The concept was to get Firefly and Serenity fans all over the world to take pictures of themselves with all their related merchandise (I have action figured, books of scholarly essays, several Serenity baseball caps, posters, comic books, and more), post them to the site, and show Hollywood that there were still a ton of people out there willing to spend serious cash on a sequel.

Alas, it never took off….


It?s Whedon?s best work, ever

Right on, right on. It’s hard to pic a favorite, but I will say that you mentioned one of the absolute best episodes: Out of Gas. I think that one was one of the best displays of Mal’s character from the entire series; the look on his face when he sees the Firefly in the shipyard says it all: purely for the love of freedom.

The way I got into that universe is kind of a unique. I saw Serenity at a Saturday matinee and was floored. Then I learned a little about the series and ate it up with a spoon. smile

Good stuff… there is always the faint flicker of hope that Wedon could bring it back in one form or another (hopefully a movie or limited TV series).

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