Paying To Stop the Ads

Plus, a Pod Pick for the screenwriter in all of us.

Click here for Slate’s Complete Podcast Archive or here to subscribe to Slate’s podcast feed on iTunes.

ABC broke a major barrier last year when it partnered with Apple to offer current hit shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives for paid download on iTunes. NBC quickly followed suit, and new network and cable shows continue to jump into the online pay-per-view pool (just this week, both The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report appeared on iTunes). In general, individual episodes cost $1.99, though you can buy a month of Stewart or Colbert for $10.

I had been waiting for something like this to happen for years, and when ABC and Apple served up their TV buffet, I eagerly started pigging out (a few slabs of Law & Order, a healthy dollop of Monk, etc.). Then I stopped.

To my great surprise, it quickly began to feel like a rip-off. I wasn’t sure why. After all, I thought, I’m happy to spend $4 to rent a movie or even old TV shows on DVD. A new TV drama episode is about half the length of a movie and, under iTunes’ pricing, half the cost. Plus, a good TV show can be much better than a lot of the dreck that passes for cinema these days.

I quickly realized that the problem was spending two bucks for something I usually get free (and, thanks to my new best friend the DVR, commercial-free as well). Television’s ubiquity and easy accessibility have cheapened it. I love Jon Stewart, and yet he’s there every night. Why would I buy an old episode when there’s a new one coming up? (Sure, there are cases when I might buy an episode of a serial drama I missed, but not many.)

Evidently, I’m not alone. ABC announced this month that it will start offering what it calls “My ABC,” a streaming version of its hit shows with ads. On the other hand, the formerly free podcast The Ricky Gervais Show (from the creator of The Office) has moved behind a pay wall. So, which way are things moving: Toward the ad model or the pay model?

We all used to understand the lines between paid and free media: We paid for movies (which in the good old days did not include preshow ads other than trailers), and suffered commercials to watch free TV; we bought CDs and expected ad-supported radio to be gratis (newspapers and magazines, of course, have long been a hybrid).

Now neither the media companies nor we can figure out when we’ll endure ads and when we’ll shell out cash to avoid them. Satellite radio, for example, offers the pay model (although some channels still have ads); podcasting (to the extent it generates any money at all) tends toward the sponsored model. I consume both, and to my surprise I find my monthly satellite radio bill to be more irksome than the generally short and amateurish podcast ads.

I fear we’re heading toward the worst of both worlds: We increasingly pay to avoid advertising, and we see more and more of it.

And speaking of commercials, perhaps you were as annoyed as I was by ABC’s strategic use of them to cut off acceptance speeches during the Oscars. The worst example was when the producers of Crash apparently lingered too long to savor their Best Picture win. Come on, it’s the last award. Let them talk! Well, here’s a podcast on which you can hear a fascinating hour-long discussion about Crash and about lots of other interesting films as well.

It’s the podcast from Creative Screenwriting magazine (Web site here; iTunes feed here). The interview show starts with the premise that movies, well, start with the premise. (As the son of a screenwriter, I admit I’m partial to the argument, made by my friend David Kipen in his new book The Schreiber Theory, that film writers are the real auteurs.) In addition to the Crash episode, the CS podcasts include talks with the writers of Transamerica, Walk the Line, The Squid and the Whale, and Syriana.

This week’s Slate podcasts also include some film talk: our Bad Movie Awards.

March 10: The Gabfest Looks to 2008
March 10: Explainer: Can I Make Them Score My SAT by Hand? (Slate piece)
March 9:  Are Housewives Happier? (Slate piece)
March 9: Explainer: Why Are Swans Dropping Like Flies? (Slate piece)
March 8:  What a Piece of Crap (Slate piece)
March 7:  The Trouble With Nation-Building (Slate piece)
March 7: Explainer: Do All Presidential Briefings Get Videotaped? (Slate piece)
March 6:  The Bad Movie Awards (Slate piece)

Comments? Podcasts@slate.com.