It’s An App World — Cable Companies Just Live In It


Two significant announcements from cable companies served to highlight the shift in power that is occurring between consumer electronics manufacturers and traditional distributors of TV content. During this past January’s CES, Time Warner Cable announced it was developing applications for Sony Bravia TVs, as well as TVs, Blu-ray players and tablet devices from Samsung. Comcast jumped on the connected-device bandwagon as well, showing off its own Samsung TV app, while also announcing that subscribers will soon be able to watch live TV programming through an iPad app.

Mobile apps are nothing new, and many cable, satellite and IPTV providers have talked about their plans to build applications for the iPhone, iPad and Android mobile phones and tablets that enable viewers to search, browse and navigate content their TV program guides. By connecting those apps with their set-top boxes, pay-TV operators can also enable viewers to manage and set their DVRs.

Applications on TVs and other living room devices will help TV providers move beyond the typical program grid that users have been stuck with for the last decade or so. The Comcast app on Samsung TVs, for instance, allows users to search for TV shows and movies that they want to watch, rather than making them navigate the typical time-based programming guide. The TV app also features a better user experience for browsing video-on-demand titles than is available through the common set-top guide.

However, while it offers customized user interfaces and more flexibility to build new features, the Samsung app also highlights the possible loss of control that traditional media distributors are facing. In the old world of TV, cable ruled “Input 1” — that is, the cable programming guide was the first thing consumers saw when they turned on the TV. But in the brave new world of TV, your local cable operator will be just one of many apps that are available through the TV’s main menu.

TV makers are increasingly interested in providing more value to consumers with their connected TVs, and so they are busy adding a number of new content options through TV apps. Those apps include everything from games to streaming music services like Pandora to alternative video services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Viewers now have more choice through the TV menu than was previously available when the cable operator dictated what programming could be viewed.

The introduction of broadband-connected TVs and the availability of services that compete with traditional cable television on those devices is just one part of the story. What might be more important in the long term is not the availability of alternative content over-the-top, but the placement of that content, via apps on the TV, alongside cable apps. That, along with improved personalization, signals a paradigm shift not just in how content is displayed on the TV, but how viewers find and discover new content. Simply put, it’s the TV maker, not the cable company, that is the gatekeeper to available content now. For an industry built on creating lineups of channels and programming, the lack of control could be troubling.

To read more about the shift in power from cable operators to TV manufacturers, read my latest article at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image source: flickr user ETC@USC

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David H. Deans

Ryan, once again, perhaps this is where Netflix is one of the few players with very savvy strategic foresight. Foreseeing the forthcoming significance of TV apps, they get the leading CE manufacturers to agree to include a large bright red Netflix button on new HDTV remote controls. Simply brilliant!

Jeremy Toeman

Really good piece, but I’ll take issue with one comment: “Simply put, it’s the TV maker, not the cable company, that is the gatekeeper to available content now.”

Change the “now” to “one day, maybe 5 or more years out” and I think we’re all good. :)

Ryan Lawler

Josh – Cable providers might be able to put their apps on TVs, but really that just makes them one content provider of a number of different options.

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