The Monday Morning Quarterback

How Apple Almost Took a Bite of TV

This is a quick story of how the biggest company in the world couldn’t make its TV dream come true.

There was a tantalizing thread in Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where he relates an unfinished conversation in which Steve says that Apple finally “nailed” a true interactive TV experience. Jobs did not announce a new initiative, or give any indication that a product was in development. But that brief conversation laid the groundwork for intense speculation that Apple did indeed have some kind of “smart TV” plans.

That’s all over for now though, as a report from Bloomberg relates the sad news that Apple has scrapped plans to get further into the TV business. That’s a shame, because the company that gave us the revolutionary iPhone, iPod and iPad, iTunes and the hardware that is used to manufacture virtually all media could have played a role in transforming an industry that is showing signs of becoming, well, a little archiac.

Just last month, interest in Apple’s TV future ratcheted up when they unexpectedly added Hulu to the Apple TV device (the little $99 box that streams an Apple lineup to your TV), and then with little fanfare but to great acclaim, allowed Amazon’s TV and movie streaming app to go on the iPad. This was deemed  significant because, while Amazon directly competes with iTunes, the move made the sheer amount of material available to Apple viewers a good deal more comprehensive than before – and that made the Apple device a little more valuable. Which made it seem more probable that Apple would accelerate its TV plans.

Alas, it turns out that the biggest corporation in the world, with tons of ready cash waiting to be spent, couldn’t reach the necessary deals with content providers. Apple, according to Bloomberg, was unable to convince media and cable companies to loosen their grip on the television industry.

When Apple created the iPod and iTunes, the company negotiated with a recording industry already weakened by illegal downloading and economic hardships. Today’s television industry is rapidly changing, but thriving. Plus, Apple was vying with the likes of Google, Microsoft, and powerhouse Amazon in what is projected to be a $200 billion worldwide piece of pie by 2017. Whoever succeeds must strike deals with media and cable companies who currently have little incentive to give up valuable revenue streams.

The result is: Apple has bowed out for now. And that’s too bad, because it sounded as though the Apple TV could have changed the way we watch the boob tube.

The current system, which the media and cable companies support, is a DVR-software system that places great constraints on the viewer’s experience. Apple, on the other hand, had more or less developed a web-based TV that allowed viewers to quickly find and access shows and movies, blending live and recorded material, bypassing the traditional content providers, and using an iPad or iPhone as a remote control. You want to watch live news coverage of a protest in East Timor? Zoom, there it is. You want to watch Super Bowl IIV with the original commercials in place? Zoom, there it is. How about a second-season episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Or the very first “Late Night with David Letterman? Zoom, there they are. A pay-per-view broadcast of Katy Perry’s London concert. Zoom. The Maltese Falcon? A movie released last month? Everything ever recorded or available live, catalogued and available at a moment’s notice. No wonder the media companies wouldn’t budge. The old delivery system would have collapsed.

Cable and satellite providers have, of course, released application for phones and tablets to allow customers to watch television on their mobile devices. But signing up with Apple would have meant that these same providers were giving a third party way too much control over their product, and that would lessen the value of the bundles of TV, Internet and phone services communications companies sell. It would have meant the end of the traditional DVR boxes and software and very possibly the end of traditionally programmed network schedules.

No way, Jose. Apple loses this round.

For now, those of us who appreciate the impact Apple had on the phone and recording industry will have to sigh with a tinge of sadness that the behemoth company was unable to impact TV. For better or worse, it would have been worth watching.

– Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive