Apple’s Attempt At A TV Revolution Runs Face First Into Comcast Corporation

For years now, media reports have suggested that Apple has dreamed of offering a disruptive broadband TV streaming service that rattles the status quo. The problem for Apple (and countless companies before it) has been that the broadcasters in charge of said status quo haven’t historically been willing to budge on the kind of flexible licensing needed to make this dream a reality. That has resulted in year after year of Apple TV service rumors that never materialize as Apple repeatedly ran face first into licensing negotiations. Similarly, cable operators, wary of Apple getting the same kind of power it now wields in the music industry and losing set top revenues, haven’t been keen on Apple’s proposals for Apple-made set top boxes.

Just about a year ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story stating that Apple was in negotiations with Comcast regarding an internet TV service that would get priority over Comcast’s network. One year later, and a new Wall Street Journal report notes that while a new Apple TV service is finally slated to launch this fall (and the Apple rumor gods really, really mean it this time), it’s going to likely be without Comcast/NBC Universal content. Why? Apple insiders claim Comcast is stringing the company along to delay Apple while it focuses on its own efforts:

“For now, the talks don’t involve NBCUniversal, owner of the NBC broadcast network and cable channels like USA and Bravo, because of a falling-out between Apple and NBCUniversal parent company Comcast Corp., the people familiar with the matter said. Apple and Comcast were in talks as recently as last year about working together on a streaming television platform that would combine Apple’s expertise in user interfaces with Comcast’s strength in broadband delivery. Apple came to believe that Comcast was stringing it along while the cable giant focused on its own X1 Web-enabled set-top box, the people said.”

While what business arrangements Comcast engages in is of course the company’s prerogative, this sort of thing is certainly fodder for those worried about Comcast’s growing power post Time Warner Cable merger. Whether it’s raising rates on Netflix via interconnection, using NBC to withhold licensing agreements, imposing broadband usage caps or refusing to authenticate HBO Go on the Playstation 4, there are plenty of ways Comcast can constrict internet video’s growth — without running afoul of our new net neutrality rules.

Meanwhile, Apple’s pretty clearly realizing the company needs to ease off of its strict control demands if it’s going to get a foothold in the broadcast and TV industry, as the sort of success and control Apple enjoys in wireless simply isn’t going to be replicated in cable without some major concessions. Insiders suggest Apple’s willing to go the extra mile to get cable operators and broadcasters on board, including sharing more viewer data than Netflix traditionally does:

“The company is willing to share details on who its viewers are, what they watch and when they watch it to entice broadcast networks and others to go along with the service, sources said…Apple, which is known for tightly controlling its ecosystem, is taking a more hands-off approach with programmers, such as letting them decide whether they want to air ads. “They’re allowing a lot more decision-making by the content owner,” said one source familiar with the talks, adding that Apple has told potential partners, “It’s up to you, whatever you guys want to do.”

Despite a decade of the cable and broadcast industry fighting internet video tooth and nail, 2015 actually appears to be the year internet video gains meaningful traction anyway. Whether that’s through Dish’s Sling TV, HBO Now or Sony’s Playstation Vue, we’re finally starting to see some broader choices when it comes to TV packages and pricing. As for Comcast getting in the way of this progress, it’s very possible the FCC and DOJ may approve their merger but impose some conditions that they play nice. Of course whether those conditions are intelligent, meaningful or actually enforced is another question entirely.

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