ESPN (s DIS) is extending its live video streams onto mobile devices, releasing a new iPhone app Thursday. There’s just one catch: to be able to watch those live streams, you have to be a subscriber to one of just three participating pay TV providers for the apps to work.
The number one cable network in the U.S. launched its WatchESPN iPhone (s aapl) app to give cable subscribers access to live programming from cable networks ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU — as well as events that are broadcast on its ESPN3 online streaming channel. An iPad-optimized version of the app is expected to be released next month.
The release of the ESPN app comes at the same time that operators and programmers are engaged in a battle over whether or not pay TV providers have the rights necessary to make live TV programming available on the iPad and other tablet devices. Over the past few weeks, both Time Warner Cable and Cablevision (s CVC) have introduced iPad apps that essentially replicate the live TV experience in the home, allowing viewers to use the tablet device as a portable TV screen, so long as subscribers are connected to their own home networks.
But some programmers — notably Fox, (s NWS) Viacom (s VIA) and Discovery Networks (s DISCA) — have pushed back, arguing that those operators haven’t licensed the content for streaming to mobile devices, either in or out of the home. That disagreement caused Time Warner Cable, at least, to pull 11 networks from its app, before adding other new programming later.
While existing live TV apps from cable providers are for viewing content in the home, the ESPN apps are positioned to watch live video anywhere. But for now, only a limited number of users that will be able to actually view those live streams. To have access, not only do you need to be a pay TV subscriber, but you need to be a subscriber of either Time Warner Cable, (s TWC) Bright House Networks or Verizon FiOS. (s VZ) Since those pay TV providers are the first three distributors to have done deals to bring ESPN online as part of their TV Everywhere initiatives, their subscribers will also be able to log in to the mobile app.
In an email, a ESPN spokesperson said that subscribers in 18 million households will be able to view live streams on the iPad, which is about one-fifth of the U.S. cable TV market. When asked when the app might become available to other pay TV subscribers, the spokesperson wrote: “We are always in discussions with our distributors and hope to announce additional deals in the future.”