Apple is reportedly in talks with Fox, CBS, NBC and The Walt Disney Co. to offer 99-cent TV episode rentals through iTunes. It's unclear if each network would offer all their content for rental on iTunes or just select series. Episodes would be available for rental within 24 hours after their initial airing and expire after 48 hours, according to Bloomberg.
The new offering would also be integrated with a revamped, and still rumored, iOS-based Apple TV that could stream content from iTunes, run iOS applications, and would have a similar design to the iPhone 4 and be renamed iTV.
With so much television content now available online, and hardware like the rumored iTV (not to mention the forthcoming Google TV) on the horizon, it begs the now age-old question: Is it time to dump your cable provider and just watch all your TV content online? Let's take a look.
Right now if you want a cable package that includes regular network television, specialty channels such as HBO and Showtime, plus any specialized sports content, you are probably looking at a cable bill somewhere around $US80-$100. But along with that hefty bill come a lot of channels, shows and other TV-based junk you simply don't want.
This has moved some people to seek out cable-free television alternatives instead. Technology writer Nick Bilton detailed his adventures in a la carte TV in The New York Times last December, and PC World Contributing Editor Harry McCracken has detailed his quest for Life without Comcast on his blog Technologizer.
I have also found that I spend far less time flipping through channels than I used to. I can find most of what I want to watch online, and if I want to see something on a bigger screen it's relatively simple to hook my laptop up to the television.
But tech-minded people have been able to put together their own television alternatives for some time. For most users, however, the technological hurdles to go cable-free are still off-putting. Could an easy-to-use iTV change all that?
If the rumors are true, iTV would be a radical departure from the current version of Apple TV that just displays downloaded content from iTunes. Powered by iOS4--the same operating system that runs the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch--the rumored iTV would be a simple set-top box able to run third-party iOS applications.
That means iTV should have access to many content-based applications you can get on your iPhone or iPad right now. Just think about what that might mean. The new iTV could stream Netflix or download movies from iTunes. Television shows would be available on Hulu Plus, ABC Player or the rumored iTunes rentals. Even baseball fans would be covered with the MLB at Bat application and a subscription to MLB.TV.
The biggest question, however, would be how well iTV apps performed on your living room screen. Rentals from iTunes won't be a problem since they are already designed with television displays in mind. But it's unclear what content would look like using the current versions of Hulu Plus or Netflix.
The specialty and Live TV Conundrum
As far as content goes, the biggest missing pieces of the puzzle would be live television events and specialty channels such as HBO and Showtime. For the most part, live TV online is improving. Newsworthy events such as the 2008 presidential debates and President Obama's inauguration were available online. The NFL has dabbled in live event viewing online with Sunday Night Football, and viewers outside of North America can buy streaming packages for regular season games as well as the Super Bowl. Many other sports are also starting to offer paid online packages or even free streaming, but their availability within North America varies.
Channels such as HBO and Showtime, however, are very reluctant to offer a lot of content online compared with their network television counterparts. You can easily purchase the latest episode of Mad Men from iTunes, for example, but recent seasons of Dexter, True Blood and Weeds are usually available for purchase on iTunes after their DVD release dates.
So if you're dependent on live sports or other specialty content, you may not be able to jettison your cable provider just yet. But if iTV and 99-cent TV show rentals become a reality, there might be quite a few of you out there who are ready to say goodbye to cable forever.
Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).