A few months ago, I got tremendously addicted to Castle, a crime series that has been broadcasting for four seasons on ABC in the States.
The show itself is a sort of Murder He Wrote. Nathan Fillion plays Richard Castle, a successful writer of crime novels. After killing off his hero character, he is searching for a new muse. Due to the sort of plot contrivance that only happens in telly, Castle ends up working with Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) as a consultant on the Murder of the Week. Shakespeare it is not, but the show succeeds due to the sheer sense of fun that exudes from everyone involved. Fillion and Katic spark off each other as the relationship between Castle and Beckett grows, and the supporting cast flesh out their characters. It is fluffy stuff, but perfect for watching on a train journey to or from work, as the cast mix wisecracking dialogue with some fun plots as they pinball around figuring out whodunnit. (Never the most taxing of questions, Poirot would usually have found the killer in three seconds flat.)
Anyway, I’ve often complained that due to the stupidity of the music, film and TV industry, that fans of a show sometimes have to jump through in order to watch the shows they love. In fact, if you want to watch a show here in the UK, it is sometimes easier to turn to torrents and illegitimate means to keep up with the broadcasts.
It is precisely this sort of hoop jumping which led to me getting an iTunes US account. Not a difficult thing, but even though I’m paying real money for iTunes US cards, it is probably technically illegal. I did this, among other things, in order to buy episodes of Castle and catch up. The US is currently on Season 4, yet the show has not really been shown properly in the UK. Season 1 was broadcast on Five last summer and I think the show pops up on Alibi or one of the other channels in the less popular regions of the Sky EPG. I’m not going to shell out for a Sky subscription… well ever, so I happily forked over some money and watched them on my iPod.
However, some bright spark has done the thing that I’ve been pleading for for a long time – put episodes of a show on iTunes UK at the same time as they appear on iTunes US and preferably immediately after broadcast. All episodes of Castle, up to and including Season 4 are now available for download on iTunes UK. Not only are they available, they are ready for download immediately after broadcast in the US. This is brilliant news and I can only hope that the trend continues. It is the sensible thing, because fans of a show are happy to pay real money to watch it and only turn to the high seas when they can’t get their fix.
But there is a catch. There is always a catch.
That table is the price for each season of Castle on iTunes US and iTunes UK. The US prices show a progression as you travel down the timeline. The UK starts off comparatively sensible for the season already broadcast here but starts going bananas for the unaired (on terrestrial) episodes.
The important thing is to take the exchange rate into account. So, after a quick visit to xe.com
We can see that for the older seasons, UK fans are paying either almost 60% or 125% more for the same episodes of the same show. The pricing settles down a bit for the later series but on pure exchange rate alone the UK is paying at a minimum a quarter more for the same thing than the US.
The usual excuse is VAT, which runs at 20% and that is only if the US version is untaxed – because the price quoted for the the US Season Pass is the price paid – the receipt doesn’t add sales tax on top. (I assume that the US transaction isn’t untaxed in some way shape or form.) There is no real argument for higher distribution costs – the shows are likely to be hosted on the same servers no matter where you purchased them from.
This puts me in a bit of a quandry. I’ve long argued that customers shouldn’t be able to dictate price or use it as an excuse. (The oft-heard cry of the pirate – “But if it wasn’t so expensive, I would buy it”. Because the simple fact is that for these people, the price point at which they would buy the product is usually zero.) But here we have a case where people in the UK are getting stung for, as far as I can see, no reason other than “because they can”.
I want to buy my TV shows through the iTunes Store. For convenience there is nothing to match it – I rarely watch broadcast TV these days and the one click and download system works perfectly. But what I do object to is being gouged for the privilege. Economies of scale should have kicked in and made the download version cheaper no matter where we are in the world. Rights issues with broadcasters must have been hammered out or else it wouldn’t be available – and if Alibi or others are taking a slice for losing viewers on broadcast, I’d ask why the hell should they?
I’ve enthused about Castle to friends, and because they are excellent and correct people, they have heeded my advice and taken the plunge – so why should they get punished for catching up? I’m not arguing for discount, I’m asking for equivalence.
Hopefully Castle will get a Season Five. But I’d have to have a real think whether I want to buy it from iTunes UK or iTunes US. Someone out there hasn’t noticed that even on iTunes customers can have a choice. This is yet another missed opportunity from an industry that has missed so many in the past that it seems deliberate and wilful.