Will the future Apple TV be TiVo redux?

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Apple’s negotiations with content owners over a new Apple TV model are reportedly proceeding at a molasses-like pace, and it’s looking like we should be less hopeful that Apple will be bringing something entirely new to the market for set-top boxes any time soon. According to a Bloomberg report Thursday detailing the negotiations, where they stand right now doesn’t leave a new Apple TV looking much different from other set-top box services already available.

That Apple is negotiating with cable companies and other content owners to get live television and older episodes of TV shows on Apple TV is not news. What is interesting is the detail in the Bloomberg story about what the holdups in the negotiations are. Here are a few of the most interesting (and depressing) bits from the story that show how cable companies are thinking about partnering with Apple:

  • Cable companies want to brand the screen interface. The most recent talks reveal that “the main stumbling blocks with cable companies have included a tussle for control over the software that determines the screen interface — the look and feel of the viewer’s experience.” It’s fair to say Apple probably won’t be cool with that.
  • Cable companies know Apple’s product will be superior. They are reportedly “concerned that a better-designed Apple product will undermine their business model.”
  • Reticence on behalf of most cable companies could force a regional roll-out strategy. Time Warner Cable is the closest to being on board with Apple’s vision, and could be its first cable partner. But that would mean Apple TV would be available mainly in the New York and Los Angeles metro areas.
  • Cable companies want to retain control by selling Apple TV boxes alongside their other products. According to the report, “Apple may also lease the boxes through cable companies, another person said. The box would be Internet-connected, similar to Comcast’s new X1 interface, which is available in Boston, Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia, the person said.”

When this is what Apple is dealing with, it means that we’re not going to see a revamped Apple TV model for a long time. If Apple does choose to bring a device to market sooner, it probably won’t turn out all that different from a set-top box/DVR you can already get from a cable operator today, it just might have an Apple logo on it.

My colleague Janko Roettgers last month noted that this result would be a defeat for Apple if you think about the company’s original disruptive vision for TV: “The company originally set out to disrupt the TV space and sell programming directly to consumers. It wanted to unbundle cable much in the same way it unbundled the CD when it started selling single songs on iTunes for $0.99. A move like that would have been truly innovative. But as it looks now, Apple is just going to repackage the good old cable bundle and make it available through yet another device.”

Cable companies as of yet, don’t have a good reason to get on board with Apple’s vision for TV. And Apple doesn’t appear to have the negotiating powers or the leverage to convince them otherwise right now.

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