NBC Screws up with Amazon Unbox Deal

by Paul William Tenny

With the DVD release of the first season of Heroes recently, I took the opportunity to link up to the Unbox page for the hit series. That's Amazon.com's video download service, like iTunes, but no where near as popular. I took some time to look into Amazon Unbox to see if it was a service worth using, and it was pretty obvious that the answer was no. With NBC's recent decision to stop selling their shows on iTunes in favor of Unbox, I'll quickly illustrate my reasons why.
Two of NBC's complaints against Apple was the inflexible pricing, and DRM. Apple uses industry-standard DRM called AES which by itself is not something you can attack by brute force. The American government has certified AES-256 for encrypting top-secret classified information, so you know it's solid. With iTunes, AES is wrapped in a container format that is proprietary to Apple, but the technical details aren't really what's important here.

When I first heard about NBC's complaints, I assumed that their resistance to Apple's use of DRM was actually resistance to DRM itself, when in fact NBC seems to think that it's not strong enough. For the record, AES is the newest and best encryption out there. Apple's problems keeping their content locked up doesn't lay with the encryption, but its implementation. In order to decrypt the content, someone or something has to have the key. Since you aren't trusted with it, that key is obfuscated and hidden, but stored on your machine. Some programs take advantage of this by ferreting out the key, rather than attacking the encryption itself.

The irony here is that Amazon uses proprietary windows encryption for Unbox, which is far more flawed that what Apple uses with iTunes. Microsoft has been playing a game of cat-and-mouse with anonymous crackers that have thwarted the last two or three attempts to keep their DRM scheme secure. The last time I checked, the latest version of Microsoft's DRM had been cracked wide open, meaning everything you can download from Unbox can be "unwrapped" with little time and effort.

In effect by moving from iTunes to Unbox, NBC has placed their content at even greater risk than before.

In addition to the issue of DRM, NBC was also unhappy with their Apple contract when it came to the price for each download. The customary price that has been established for DRM'ed TV shows is $1.99 USD. Again, I assumed that NBC wanted the flexibility to reduce prices to compete with other networks, and make their content more attractive to consumers. After all, the first full season of Heroes would cost you $46.76 from Amazon Unbox and iTunes (wrapped in extremely restrictive DRM) while you can the box set on DVD for $39.99 new, $34.98 used. Additionally, you can forget about the commentary and extras you typically get with DVD's when you buy from a download service.

While iTunes is a little more liberal with how many different computers you can play their content on (wait, I thought it was your content, since you bought it, not theirs), Microsoft is much more strict. Neither DRM scheme allows you the mobility of DVDs - not by far.

Again, my assumption was betrayed - NBC doesn't want to make single episodes cheaper, they want to orchestrate gimmick buys like getting the whole season at once for a small discount. Will that discount amount to the difference between the full season download price and the DVD? I doubt it, but you never know.

NBC clearly doesn't understand the technology, and that's disheartening. Their claim that they are breaking their contract with Apple because Apple's DRM isn't good enough when it is significantly better than Microsoft's is an outright laugher.

TV shows and music are, if you think about it, still over priced. 99c may sound good, and look good, but it's about the price of the same track if you divide the cost of a CD by the number of tracks. 15 tracks: $15. Sound about right to you?

DVD box set: $40.
Full season download: $46.76

I wonder how it is that the DVD box set costs money to physically manufacture, yet costs less than a download which is nothing but moving bytes around on the Internet.

No thanks, NBC. I'll continue recording Heroes and your other shows with my DVR, and then burn them to DVD myself. I wont' get any extras, but I won't be paying a dime for it, nor will I have to put up with your DRM on my property. Oh yeah, it's legal too.

Ain't fair use a bitch?


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