Apple OKs variable pricing for HBO

Price is right for cable network

Apple has blinked again.

Steve Jobs, who vowed never to bow to Hollywood, is now bending, in hopes of luring more premium content to his iTunes Store.

The tech titan, who only recently gave studios major pricing concessions on the wholesale price of movie downloads, has just agreed to variable pricing for HBO’s smallscreen fare.

Under the feevee channel’s Apple deal, hour long episodes of “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” and “Rome” will sell for more than $2.99, while half-hour skeins such as “Sex and the City,” “The Wire” and “The Flight of the Concords” will sell for iTunes’ standard $1.99.

In another departure from rival TV pacts, episodes will not be available for purchase until they hit the DVD window.

Deal reps HBO’s first electronic sell-through pact. The feevee channel has been reluctant to cannibalize its subscription fees and DVD sales. HBO did, however, experiment with free iTunes podcasts of “In Treatment” as a way of boosting the aud of the five-day-a-week skein.

It’s no coincidence that “Sex and the City” was one of the first HBO skeins to go on sale at iTunes Tuesday; a feature film followup is due in theaters later this month. Eventually, most of the channel’s library is expected to go on sale through the iTunes Store.

Jobs has apparently decided that access to content that will drive hardware sales of iPods, iPhones and Apple TV devices is more important than maintaining rigid pricing. He previously resisted variable pricing on music and TV skeins for the sake of simplicity, although some of the global iTunes Stores do offer variable pricing.

NBC yanked its skeins, some of which were very popular on iTunes, over the issue in December. And last week, the Peacock cited Microsoft’s openness to variable pricing when it signed an electronic sell-through deal with company’s struggling Zune service.

NBC hasn’t shut out Apple entirely, however: It has made some of its shows available for streaming on the iPhone, and its U.K. store continues to sell Peacock skeins.

HBO’s Apple pact will not affect the feevee’s On Demand service, by which subscribers can watch current episodes as seasons unfold. Broadcast networks typically make episodes available online the day after they air on a number of sites, including their own, but those tend to be ad-supported.

The HBO deal reflects the growing willingness of Time Warner companies to experiment with proven windows. Warner has been collapsing video on demand windows on many of its pics so that they are available on VOD in the traditional homevid window. Under this strategy most pics are available for rent or sale simultaneously at the Apple’s iTunes Store. Conglom has added incentive of boosting VOD transaction through its Time Warner Cable systems.

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