More on backing up Apple iTunes movie & TV content

I realise that I’m starting to sound like a broken record at this point, but being able to easily back up, retain and watch movie and TV purchases from the iTunes store is important to me – and it should be for anybody who regularly uses the iTunes store.

I’m struggling to understand Apple’s approach to how it stores and manages music, movies and TV show purchases through the iTunes store. Apple is actively promoting the iTunes Store’s ability to buy and watch purchases everywhere because it stores everything you purchase on its own servers.

But they have the right to remove content at any time and strongly advocate that you need to download it so you can keep your purchase. However, with that comes some major disadvantages: you lose 4K and you lose iTunes Extras if they come with the film. It takes away a lot of the features that attract people to the platform (name me any other online video retailer that offers audio commentaries and featurettes). Apple needs to significantly improve in this area because it’s not inspiring consumer confidence in cloud computing and services if content you’ve bought is removed without knowledge or compensation, leaving either nothing or significantly less than what you bough. Cloud computing something Apple is keen to increase its interest in, especially after it’s been revealed that Apple has gone on a hiring spree.

To avoid you having to go through my previous rambling rants, I’ll summarise the key points here as I understand the situation:

  • Apple can remove any music, movie or TV show title you’ve purchased from your library at any time, for any reason. The most likely explanation is the ownership of copyright has changed rights owners and Apple hasn’t been granted permission to continue selling that title. Apple doesn’t give any notice if this happens. Nor are you entitled to any kind of refund or compensation. Then again, it’s also possible that you could potentially still access your purchase. In summary: it’s effectively completely random as to whether you keep your purchase with all its features to stream or download from Apple’s servers. You might keep a title forever, a week, a month, a year, 5 years, 10 years. You just don’t know.
  • Apple recommends downloading and backing up your purchased media content. Music purchases are DRM-free, usually small, and this is usually no problem for the majority of people to keep backups of their music files. Movies and TV shows, on the other hand, are large, multi-gigabyte files which are DRM protected, meaning that this restricts playback to your Apple account and devices that you own. iPhones, iPads, Macs and Windows machines can playback downloaded movies and TV shows. If they’re not downloaded, they’re streamed from Apple’s servers. iTunes Extras after the 10th July, 2014 are streaming only and cannot be downloaded. 4K content is streaming only, restricted to certain devices, and cannot be downloaded. So they cannot be backed up.
  • Apple TV HD and 4K devices are streaming devices only. iTunes purchases are not officially supported being accessed from NAS devices. Home Share doesn’t seem to support a new movie/TV show container format that I’ve found which is being used for newer titles in the iTunes Store. AirPlay should be used to stream to an Apple TV device from an iPhone, iPad and Mac/Windows machines if the title is not available anymore from Apple’s servers. Again, a reminder: you will lose access to 4K (if it was offered in that format) and iTunes Extras if the film is pulled from Apple’s servers. Your movie download only consists of the HD movie (or SD if not available in HD).
  • iTunes purchases downloaded to iPad and iPhone are not backed up if the device is set to only backup to iCloud. You’d need to connect your device to a computer running iTunes and macOS Catalina and back up the entire contents of the device there.

It should be noted that the terms of Apple’s Media Services are extremely ambiguous (for example, streaming is barely mentioned – just “redownloads”) and in my initial dealings with Apple Support, it feels as if they’re making excuses on the spot to get around their flawed and consumer unfriendly policies.

So, with regards to not being able to play newer iTunes movie purchases through Home Share (to test backup strategies), I reached out to Apple Support on a separate ticket and used examples such as Warner Bros. Birds of Prey, Lionsgate’s Knives Out and Warner Bros. Joker. All recent films, and all appear to use a new container format (HLS) when downloaded from the iTunes Store to a computer via the Apple TV app (on macOS Catalina). I discuss the symptoms on my previous post.

Apple Support and I have had some interesting conversations about this – nearly 90 minutes spent on the phone. The first revelation is that Apple does not officially support Network Attached Drives (or NAS). So if anybody is using Synology or similar NAS tech to share media libraries with an Apple (TV) device – Apple won’t support you.

The second was that AirPlay is the recommended method by which to play this type of content to the Apple TV. From your Mac, iPhone or iPad, you start playing the content and select the AirPlay symbol, select the device you want to stream it to, and it starts playing there.

The trouble with downloading content to an iPad and iPhone is the limited space available, and you’d still need to back the whole device up to a computer (Mac or Windows) to be able to backup any purchased media content because it won’t be backed up to the iCloud.

So what you really need to back up your movies and TV shows is a Mac (I can’t speak for Windows too much because I have no idea at what state it has move on from iTunes and transitioned to separate apps like the Mac) – but you need to either download the entire library to your Mac’s internal SSD/HD, or to an external drive. If the latter, you’d have to find your own way of ensuring that you have backups of that drive. Apple recommends using Time Machine to back up the Apple’s internal drive(s), though (again, see previous post) – this doesn’t always yield favourable results and I had to rely on the Apple cloud to restore everything for Apple Music. I only hope it was because of the separation of iTunes and library folder layout which was the problem (dramatically different layouts when I compared my Time Machine backup to that of the new Apple Musics app).

Note: Any iTunes Extras content made after 10th July, 2014 cannot be downloaded – it’s streaming only. So if Apple pulls the plug on a title, you’ll only have access to the file(s) containing the movie (up to HD quality only).

What Apple told me about the HLS container files is that it’s possible that the DRM is preventing playback on the Apple TV device via Home Share. If so, that’s crazy – especially as I’m using an all Apple ecosystem. And that this is not a bug. Regardless of whether it is or isn’t (I say isn’t), it seems that me that Home Sharing could be for the chop in a later tvOS/macOS. If it’s not able to handle these new container formats, it makes future iTunes purchases impossible to play via Home Share. Obviously one would use the Apple cloud service to stream in all cases where possible – but if Apple removes the content (without notice), you’ll be forced to use the method described above.

UPDATE (19th May, 2020) – the issue of the HLS package download can be resolved by going to Preferences -> Playback in the Apple TV app in macOS Catalina and ensuring that Download Multichannel Audio and Download HDR when available are both unticked.

I’ve still yet to hear back from Apple why this has to be done, and why Apple TV devices can’t see the HLS format (and what good does it do anyway if the download has no effect whatsoever).

Fix .movpkg / HLS file downloads in Apple TV app by deselecting the above

I’ve asked Apple Support to continue investigating and raise this accordingly with the technical engineering teams responsible. But I still say that Apple needs to keep all previous iTunes Store purchases on Apple’s servers even if the seller has pulled the title from the Apple platform – unless it is a genuine mistake by the seller, and then compensation needs to be organised accordingly. I don’t care about the legalities of this – and neither should the average consumer – we shouldn’t care about what licenses or agreements Apple has with their sellers. Keep the purchases on Apple servers indefinitely!

Downloading and managing files is the very least thing I want to be doing – I chose Apple because the process of purchasing and watching movies and TV content across multiple devices using their servers is quick and convenient. When you start to bring in backups (and only half-arsed backups at that due to the strange download/streaming hybrid Apple has found itself in), it becomes inconvenient and you see the cracks in the system that Apple has spent decades building up.

It also has to be said that we really need better consumer law surrounding digital content and protecting consumer purchases – especially if it’s being stored in the cloud.