Peacock gives iTunes big trove of content

NBC Universal took a deep plunge into digital downloads, offering 11 past and present shows for sale through Apple Computer’s iTunes.

The shows, ranging from the 1950s “Dragnet” to current hits like “Law & Order” to cable shows like Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” were posted for download on the iTunes system for $1.99 on Tuesday morning.

The shows are being offered commercial-free in a deal similar to the handful offered by Disney through iTunes starting in October. NBC’s deal goes further with offerings from its stable of cable networks, back catalog and latenight programming, making the Peacock Apple’s biggest content supplier.

“The overall strategy at NBC Universal is to make all our content available everywhere,” said NBC Uni TV prexy Jeff Zucker.

Consumers will be offered current primetime shows the day after their original air date. Catalog shows are offered for the same price, a reflection, said Zucker, of their scarcity.

A discount is offered for consumers willing to buy entire seasons of past shows.

Since Apple began offering video downloads two months ago more than 3 million have been sold. About half of those have been shows offered by Disney, including ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” and Disney Channel’s “That’s So Raven.”

The NBC deal expands Apple’s TV offering to 300 episodes of 16 different series and Zucker said that number will expand quickly as NBC Uni fills the iTunes pipe with new shows.

“You are going to see a series of announcements in the coming weeks,” he said.

NBC’s talks with Apple began last spring and NBC Universal chairman Bob Wright told Daily Variety last month the conglom was close to sealing the deal.

Apple’s second network deal indicates the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer maker is firmly in control of pricing as it has been for music downloads, which have stayed at 99¢ a track despite record label efforts to introduce varied pricing for new and catalog releases.

Completing a digital download deal took on additional urgency for NBC this year as illegal downloads of TV shows exploded. NBC estimates that there are 430,000 illegal downloads of “Battlestar Galactica” each week.

“It proves there is tremendous interest in it and good people have developed bad habits by illegally downloading it. Now they will have to develop good habits,” Zucker said.

But NBC’s deal comes as two companies — EchoStar and TiVo — plow ahead with initiatives that could upset the network’s Apple cart.

EchoStar’s Dish Network introduced the PocketDish handheld in October, which allows users to download TV and movies to a portable player for free.

This contrasts with satellite competitor and News Corp. subsid DirecTV, which inked a digital deal with NBC that allows users to download shows for 99¢.

TiVo said last month that as part of its TiVoToGo service it will enable the easy transfer of recorded content to Apple’s iPod and the Sony PSP.

Both moves were made without the consent of the broadcast nets and raise the question whether consumers who already pay a high cable or satellite bill should have the right also to move that content to other devices.

“This is clearly not the proper way to behave,” Zucker said. “We have worked in concert with Apple to benefit the consumer; where others are not working with content providers is clearly not in the best interest of the consumer.”

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