US television networks are being cagey about the potential of the iTunes Music Store to sell their content. Is downloadable TV a serious proposition from Apple’s all conquering music shop?

Apple recently announced that it had sold more than one million videos on the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) in less than twenty days. Considering the limited video content that’s available – currently there are only five different television shows for sale and just over 2,000 music videos – combined with the limited availability of the new iPod with video capabilities, those seem to be pretty good numbers.

By way of comparison, Apple sold one million songs in the first week the iTMS went live, while it took a mere two days for users to subscribe to one million (free) podcasts. Yet by any metric, going from zero to one million sales is a pretty good month, particularly factoring in that only a very small fraction of iTMS customers own a 5G iPod’s that will play video.

Apple is staying quiet on the percentages of music videos to TV shows and short films it has sold. Nor will it disclose whether more shows are on the way. Yet if recent history is any indication, the shows currently on offer at the iTMS are just the beginning. But strong sales should spur networks to begin offering more content on an on-demand basis.

“This is a new form of distribution that offers incremental revenue and doesn’t compete strongly with DVD sales,” says Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld. “Networks and studios are learning to think of television more as a commercial product than ephemeral entertainment.”

Faith in pod

Shortly after Apple released iTunes 4.9 with podcast subscription features, the major networks and mainstream media rushed to start podcasting content on the iTMS. Despite the fact that podcasting had been around for quite some time, it took Apple’s entry into the field and promotion of the medium via its ubiquitous iTunes player to get the ball rolling.

Similarly, though neither vodcasting (video podcasting) nor video-on-demand are new, Apple’s embrace of these technologies, particularly its inclusion of the latter in iTunes 6, has brought both to the mainstream for the first time.

Yet unlike the rush into podcasting, major broadcasters seem to be only slowly, and quite cautiously, entering this market. The TV shows for sale on the iTMS today are the very same ones available when Apple launched iTunes 6, albeit with more episodes. And for now, at least, the Disney-ABC Television Group looks like the only player involved.

While CBS offers numerous podcasts – such as highlights from several of its news programs, including 60 Minutes and Face the Nation, as well as popular soap opera fare like Guiding Light – the network was quiet on whether it plans to add shows to the iTMS. CBS says it is in talks with a variety of players and that any announcements on video plans would come on their own.

“Obviously the specifics aren’t something we’d announce in an article about the thousandth or millionth or gazillionth video or whatever it is that ABC or Apple is claiming, says CBS spokesperson Dana McClintock. “But I would be able to tell you that we are in a number of discussions with a number of players about offering our content for download or streamed.”

Likewise MSNBC, which podcasts several of its popular programs including Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Hardball with Chris Matthews noted that it would not have video for sale any time soon.

“We don’t have plans [to sell video on the iTMS] right now,” says MSNBC spokesperson Ann Keegan. “It’s something we might pick up and run with in the future, but right now it’s not even on our radar.”

For laughs

One network that is moving towards offering more video via the Internet, if not the iTMS, is Comedy Central, which just launched a new broadband content site this week called MotherLoad. The site will offer highlights from its on-air programming, such as expanded interviews from The Daily Show, as well as original online-only content.

However, in order to access the content, users must have Pentium III or better PCs running Windows XP or 2000/SP4. Mac users are left out of the picture, at least for now. Yet Comedy Central expressed guarded optimism that it might make some of its content available on the iTMS in the future.

“It’s definitely something that we’re looking into. We would like to make something available [via iTunes],” says Comedy Central media representative Aileen Budow. “But we don’t have any plans right now.”

Nonetheless, Apple keeps its secrets quite well – were you expecting a second all-new iPod to arrive a month after the first? Networks, as CBS’ McClintock points out, like to make a splash and generate as much publicity as possible when announcing something new. So although no-one will go on record with plans today, tomorrow is always another day.