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The Television Will Not Be Revolutionized

An ABC app is only a half-step forward.
March 19, 2013

The New York Times is reporting that The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, is developing an app that would live stream ABC content to phones and tablets. Reportedly, the app would likely be available to users as soon as this year, and it stands to reason that the app would be similar to the apps WatchESPN and WatchDisney (the Disney Company owns all three networks). The app would make ABC the first American broadcaster to provide a live Internet stream of programming to users.

This might initially seem to be the beginning of the TV Everywhere revolution being spearheaded by the likes of Aereo, which uses antenna farms to relay broadcast content to your devices (see “Aereo Has Landed”). But there’s a catch. WatchABC (assuming that’s what it will be called) will be limited to users who pay for cable or satellite; users would authenticate the app by logging in with their cable credentials, much the way you may log in to HBOGo. The arrangement, says the Times, “preserves the cable business model that is crucial to the bottom lines of broadcasters, while giving subscribers more of what they seem to want.”

This is how revolutions are quieted or co-opted: the ancien régime makes just enough concessions to appease the revolutionary fervor. You want TV on your tablet? Fine. But we’re going to do it in such a way that preserves the existing business models of cable companies and broadcasters. The television will not be revolutionized.

So what does this mean for the likes of Aereo?

The Times quotes a Forrester analyst named James L. McQuivey who said he thinks ABC’s app would not be a rebuttal to Aereo. I disagree. Chet Kanojia of Aereo last year told me that his goal was to “decouple technology and content” and that an ultimate goal would be to disrupt the cable bundling that goes on: “the baby step is to enable a la carte channel access,” he told me.

WatchABC appears to nudge us towards neither of those goals. It’s an example of content providers retaining influence over the technology that delivers the content. And by insisting that users log in through their cable or satellite package, WatchABC appears not to apply any pressure to break up the channel bloat and bundling of cable TV packages.

WatchABC–at least as portrayed by the Times–would indeed advance the cause of more flexible TV watching, enabling us to place-shift our viewing of “Good Morning America,” say. But I see no indication that an app like WatchABC would create any pressure for the existing business models underlying television to change. While it might feel like a step forward for many users, I suspect that advocates for genuine disruption in TV might see this as a step back.