Maybe iTunes Has Always Been the Perfect TV Model

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

Like many other forward-thinking techies, I have been thinking about unsubscribing from cable for a long time. Services like Netflix and Hulu are increasingly my go-to places for all my television needs. There are a few things I still a few shows that I can't stream, and I usually buy those from iTunes. It eats me up a little each time I do this, since each episode costs me $2.99, which seems a little steep for 42 minutes of entertainment.

In the past few months however, my frustration with spending $2.99 on an episode of television has shifted to a frustration with all of these $10 charges coming out of my checking account every month. Others have complained about this as well, and the joke has been made, "why won't someone come along and bundle all these shows together for one simple monthly fee? Oh wait, that's cable!"

I was watching last week's episode of The Bonus Round over on GameTrailers, and they were talking about this same problem. They suggested that instead of subscribing to entire services to see one show, you could subscribe specifically to just the shows you wanted to watch. All the while, I'm thinking, "isn't this the entire iTunes model?"

So I'm running the numbers today to see how much it would cost someone to watch all the shows they wanted by both subscribing to multiple services and simply buying them on iTunes. I'll be using my own taste as a metric, so obviously it won't be a perfectly scientific test. Let's just look at this as me working out my own finances in public.

What are we watching?

Here's what I want to watch:

  • Game of Thrones
  • Mythbusters
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Fargo
  • Maron
  • The Americans
  • Community
  • Elementary
  • House of Cards
  • Transparent
  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
  • Top Gear (UK version, of course)

What services do I have to pay for to stream these?

  • Hulu - $8/month
  • Netflix - $8/month
  • Amazon Prime - $99/year
  • HBO Go - ~$20/month with Comcast internet
  • CBS All Access - $6/month
  • FXNOW - free with cable subscription

If you had those subscriptions for all of 2015, they would run you $603. Whoa.

What if you bought this year's season on iTunes?

For some shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards, I was not able to buy their new seasons since they haven't started yet. For every show, I bought the newest season available on the store, or used the season pass price for shows that are mid-season.

My total buying a-la-carte is $325. Yup, just over half of what I would pay though subscription services.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, what's the catch?

Those numbers look great for iTunes, but there are a few asterisks by that number. First, I could not buy everything on iTunes. HBO's Last Week Tonight is not available to purchase at all, so it just wouldn't be watched. Second, Amazon's Transparent is only available to Prime subscribers now, and will not be available on iTunes at all. Instead, I used the non-Prime price for the last season of Amazon's other show, Alpha House as a comp. Not perfect, but it's the best I could do.

At the same time, streaming doesn't get you everything either. The Americans is only available to stream through FXNOW, which requires a cable subscription to use. Also, Mythbusters and Top Gear UK are not available to steam anywhere, so you must buy those shows.

The other obvious catch is that while iTunes usually has new episodes around midnight after they air, some shows have serious delays. House of Cards season 2 had a 4 month delay before it hit iTunes and Game of Thrones had a 10 month delay! If you want to talk about these shows on Twitter right after they air, iTunes is not ideal.

It also must be mentioned that you own everything you buy from iTunes. If I decide to stop paying for Netflix, then I love access to House of Cards. If I buy it off iTunes, it's mine forever.

Finally, it must be noted that you don't just get those shows when you subscribe to these services. Netflix doesn't just get you House of Cards, it gets you old movies, a ton of documentaries, and a bunch of other TV shows. Amazon Prime gets a crapton of other features beyond their TV shows as well. This is not lost on me, as even if I didn't want to watch any Amazon shows, I will still subscribe to Prime.

Clear cut pricing vs. abstraction

I don't want this to turn into a “now that I'm older” posts, but I find myself more and more inclined to paying for things where the price is clear. There is a simplicity to the iTunes model: I give them $XX and they give me a show I want. This is opposed to a steaming service, whose library changes all the time: I give you $X per month, and I get whatever you have available right now.

An advantage streaming services have is that they never cost you a ton all at the same time. Netflix is $8 per month, something most people can afford. If you're living paycheck to paycheck, it's easier to find $8 in the budget for Netflix than $40 for a season pass to Elementary.

I also don't really watch as many shows as I used to. For me, it looks like buying my shows through iTunes is much more cost-effective over time, but if I watched 20 or 30 shows, it would be a different story. If you're a TV hound, then maybe a cable subscription with a good DVR is still the right choice for you.


As of early 2015, you have to make sacrifices if you want to go 100% down the subscription or a-la-carte routes. I will say that actually running the numbers on everything makes me really want to ditch some of my streaming services and go mostly all in on iTunes. Right now it seems like the best solution is to buy most of my shows on iTunes and selectively subscribe to a couple services to get what I'm missing.