The hot new product is more than just the latest consumer electronics gadget–it can help stations extend audience and build revenue.
It can’t record shows off air. It can’t even find your Web site. So why should stations care about AppleTV? Because it’s a hot new product that can help them to extend their audience and build revenue.
AppleTV has been described as an iPod for the home TV. Like an iPod, it can only play back audio or video that’s first been downloaded onto a PC or Macintosh using Apple’s free iTunes software. If you’re happy listening to music or watching videos while hunched over your computer, the free iTunes download is really all you need.
Of course, an iPod adds portability while AppleTV enables you to sit back and enjoy your media in the comfort of your living room on your own television—that is if you’ve got a newer set with an HDMI or component input. For a detailed technical analysis of the AppleTV, I recommend Robert Mohns’ excellent review for Macintouch.com. Suffice it to say that reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, agree that AppleTV delivers high-quality video with ease and elegance—as long as that video can first be captured by your computer with iTunes. And for TV stations, therein lies both opportunities and an obstacle.
The opportunities include the ability to offer viewers a convenient way to watch local programs on demand; a chance to attract a younger, tech-savvy audience stations don’t otherwise reach; and a way to build brand equity in both programming and talent that might well capture a national following in the not-too-distant future.
The downsides, while surmountable, may be daunting:
- AppleTV and iTunes do not currently include the ability to record off air (see below). A station that wants one of its local programs on iTunes must upload it as a free podcast.
- The front page of the iTunes store showcases its saleable media, primarily music, movies and primetime TV shows. There is, so far, no precedent for selling local programs on iTunes.
- On its frontmost Podcast page, Apple can promote only a fraction of the thousands of shows it distributes. Naturally, that space goes to ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR and other famous initials. So publicizing local programs is up to the station.
- While Apple’s podcast policies do not prohibit advertising, commercial brevity in new media is de rigeur. That means very few ads, lasting 15 seconds or less.
With all that in mind, why bother? Because AppleTV is a game-changer. Right now if you search the iTunes store for “local TV” or specific call letters, you’ll find relatively few TV stations represented—and most of those are audio only podcasts. But remember—until just last week, video podcasts were nearly unwatchable on the tiny screen of the iPod with Video. But AppleTV now provides a full-sized analog picture, upconverted to near-HD quality. Suddenly iTunes is a viable distribution medium for local stations.
And suddenly it makes sense for local stations to offer programming to viewers via a free online subscription via iTunes, available through the station’s Web site. In fact, several stations have already done just that. In Pittsburgh, Cox’s WPXI offers seasonal sportscasts including March (basketball) mania, Steelers’s training camp and local high school sports roundups. In Albany, N.Y., Clear Channel’s WXXA lets viewers subscribe to a range of video podcasts including top news stories, daily weather and even a local business report. And in Augusta, Ga., Media General’s WJBF feeds daily news, sports and weather updates.
Although AppleTV can deliver these webcasts to the living room, it’s probably too soon to expect new ad revenue from this new audience. But anything stations produce for AppleTV doubles as a pilot for related technologies, especially fee-based mobile TV, which is coming up fast. Things will get especially interesting this June when Apple and AT&T/Cingular start selling the new iPhone, which boasts a much larger screen than its iPod progenitor, and can synchronize programs with AppleTV. That means commuters will soon be able to download their local early evening newscast, start watching it on the bus or train, then, when they get home, catch the kicker plus a headline update.
Stations debating whether to feed news programs to iTunes would be wise to look beyond the present limitations of AppleTV which, after all, is the very first iteration of a brand new product line. Already the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reviews offer tantalizing clues that future AppleTV’s could easily incorporate a full-fledged digital video recorder.
But in fact, there’s no need to wait. Consumers can do that right now with the EyeTV Hybrid by Elgato systems. It’s a $150 add-on for Macintosh computers that can automatically locate and record any broadcast or cable program using the free TitanTV electronic program guide. It can even capture programs in true high definition. The EyeTV can be programmed to automatically encode recorded programs for iTunes and install them on AppleTV’s playlist. Unfortunately, this process relies on a computer’s microprocessor, which means at least an hour’s worth of encoding time for each half-hour newscast. That may frustrate anyone addicted to the instant-gratification of TiVO. Elgato is already experimenting with hardware-based solutions that can minimize that encoding time.
But most station executives are well aware that they can’t afford to sit by idly waiting for the technology to sort itself out. Viewer loyalties and habits have already started to shift. Alas, it’s too soon to say whether AppleTV will emerge as the marketplace champion. Fortunately, there’s a near-foolproof way to exploit the technology without betting the farm. Promote your station webcasts with a promotional contest, and reward the winners with an AppleTV and maybe even a high-def TV to go with it.