"Bite me, Apple," said the Peacock.
A few weeks after scuttling its contract to sell TV shows via Apple's iTunes Music Store, NBC Universal announced that it will offer limited free downloads of some of the Peacock Network's most popular programs starting in November.
Episodes of favorites such as The Office and Heroes will be available for one week after their air date, NBC said Wednesday. The network will start testing its new service, called NBC Direct, next month.
And yes, there will be unskippable ads, just as there are now when you stream an episode of Heroes or Friday Night Lights online.
And, unlike the content that you can download from iTunes for $1.99 a pop, these digital files will expire seven days after the TV broadcast.
"Kind of like Mission: Impossible, only I don't think there would be any explosion and smoke," NBC Universal Television Group president Jeff Gaspin told the New York Times.
But, it will be free and NBC is planning on expanding its service so that eventually users can subscribe to an entire season of a show and have content download automatically each week, similar to a TiVo Season Pass. Users will also soon be able to transfer the content from their PCs to a portable device or to a Mac. And then, finally, to an iPod. (FYI, only Windows users will be able to use NBC Direct at first.)
Other future advancements NBC is aiming for include high-definition downloads, which will speed up the transfer of larger files, and a special software player with filtering technology to prevent the viewing of illegally obtained videos, a plague that NBC accused iTunes of not doing enough to prevent.
In response to NBCU's suggestion that iTunes didn't want to make any change that might adversely affect the sale of iPods, iPhones or its other electronic devices, the online store announced that it would quit offering NBC content even before the new 2007-2008 season began.
"We are disappointed to see NBC leave iTunes, because we would not agree to their dramatic price increase," Eddy Cue, Apple's vice president of iTunes, said in a statement last month.
NBCU, whose programming accounted for about 40 percent of iTunes' video-download sales, had been angling to raise the price of some of its content to as high as $4.99 per download. It denied, however, breaking ranks with iTunes over its retail prices, saying it was its wholesale prices (what iTunes paid NBC for the content) that were ruffling the Peacock's feathers.
For the past few years, broadcasters have been engaged in a seemingly never-ending quest to find new ways to engage existing viewers and attract young and technologically savvy new fans.
NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the CW all make shows available for free viewing online and the amount of content for sale from providers such as iTunes is increasing on a daily basis.
"With the creation of this new service, we are acknowledging that now, more than ever, viewers want to be in control of how, when and where they consumer their favorite entertainment," said Vivi Zigler, executive VP of NBC Digital Entertainment.
In the next phase of NBCU's plan, which it hopes to put into effect by mid-2008, viewers will be able to pay for downloads that they can not only keep but also easily transfer to other devices.
But starting right away, users can download free, albeit short-lived, episodes of a variety of programming, including The Office, 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, as well as new shows such as Life and Bionic Woman.