Apple has been steadily adding videos to its download library, but how does buying videos compare to buying songs in terms of price and quality? (More after the jump.)
Now that Apple is really starting to make some major shows available for download (I can still remember when "That's So Raven" was one of around 5 choices) I think it's time examine the whole phenomenon of buying videos on the iTMS.
I'm a fan of the iTunes Music Store in general, because it's incredibly convenient and it has allowed me to access a lot of music that I wouldn't ordinarily hear. I'm not the kind of person who keeps up with record releases or who visits music stores on a regular basis, but I do enjoy music, and the iTMS has allowed me to experience (and yes, buy) a lot more music than I would have if I had to buy actual CD.
Critics of the iTMS generally point to two issues. One is sound quality. Some people object to paying for music that has been compressed (the songs on the iTMS are 128kbs AAC files). I'm not an audiophile and I'm glad I'm not. I'd much rather be able to just enjoy a song than to notice every minor flaw. That said, I don't think there are major issues with sound quality on the iTMS. I've never done an A/B comparison between a CD and a song from the iTMS, but the iTMS songs are more than good enough for me.
The other issue is DRM. Some people are philosophically opposed to it, and I can understand that to some degree. But I also think that people have to realize that without DRM of some kind, the record labels would never have agreed to sell their music online. Never. So I see it as a necessary evil, and Apple's version is pretty benign as DRM goes. It's consistent for all the tracks you buy and it doesn't interfere with how most people will want to use their music (assuming they don't mind having to use an iPod and not a competing player). When you consider the convenience of being able to download any (available) song at any time, coupled with the fact that you can usually just buy the songs you like instead of being forced to buy an entire CD, I think these issues are pretty minor.
However, things change somewhat when videos enter the picture. While a song on the iTMS is comparable in quality to a song on a CD, an iTMS video is nowhere near as good quality as you would get on a DVD, or even from broadcast television. They are limited to 320 x 240 resolution (the resolution of the iPod's screen) which means that if you're viewing them on a computer screen or television, you will either have a very small image or one that has jagged edges and an overall lack of detail.
And what about the price? Apple charges $1.99 per episode. While it may seem like a good deal at first glance to get 30-60 minutes of video for $1.99 when you pay $0.99 for a few minutes of music, you have to consider that video and audio are very different. It wouldn't be difficult for most people to listen to a song they like dozens if not hundreds of times over the course of a few years. But how many times are you likely to watch an episode of a TV show? And you can listen to music while doing other things, but video requires more attention.
For songs, it's usually cheaper to buy on the iTMS than to buy CDs, partially because you can pick and choose the ones you like, and partially because entire albums are often available for $9.99. However, depending on the show, buying videos on the iTMS is can actually be more expensive than buying the same shows on DVD. You can buy the DVDs and convert them for the iPod yourself using free software like Handbrake (giving you both a DVD-quality version and a portable version) and this also gives you the option to re-encode your videos in a few years when the newest iPod has a much higher resolution screen. Speaking of re-encoding, while songs videos purchased on the iTMS can be burned to CD, videos can't be easily converted to other formats or burned to a DVD for viewing.
So is buying videos for suckers? Not necessarily. I think anyone wanting to build up a "library" of videos would be much better off buying DVDs and converting them for playback on the iPod themselves. But there are reasons why people might want to buy at least some videos on the iTMS. One of the biggest benefits of the iTMS is that it has episodes for seasons that are still on the air. If you missed last night's episode of Desperate Housewives, you can download it on the iTMS. For many of these shows, you can get a "season pass" that will automatically download episodes of the show as they become available each week (or day). These season passes are a much better deal than buying the shows individually, often making them less than $1 apiece.
In short, for shows that are currently on the air, buying from iTunes might make sense, as long as you're aware of the limitations. For older shows that are available on DVD, you are better off buying the DVDs and converting them yourself. Of course, there is still the convenience factor (converting DVDs to the iPod format does take time and a little bit of know-how) but you should at least realize what your options are.