The fight for the TV audience is quickly moving online and to a growing number of mobile applications, with Apple’s iPad as the latest battleground. Over the last 18 months, a number of broadcasters and pay-TV operators have launched iPad apps that provide access to streaming video services. Some are live, some are on-demand, but all are being offered to provide additional value to their traditional TV services.
Here’s how some of those apps match up, and what features are most important to them.
What networks and operators have to offer
Network programmers and pay-TV operators are trying to offer additional value to their viewers, but each takes a different approach when it comes to reaching the consumer. For the networks, it’s all about branding and extending their broadcast content to new platforms. Meanwhile, cable and satellite TV companies are attempting to aggregate content from multiple networks to create a one-stop shop for all the content viewers can watch on TVs and on their apps.
ABC. ABC was the first network to release an iPad app at the tablet’s launch, and in many ways has set the standard for how others should make their shows available on the tablet. The ABC app has ad-supported, full-length episodes and clips for most of its shows.
CNN. The CNN Live app follows parent company Time Warner’s focus on creating TV-Everywhere experiences online and on mobile devices. With live video feeds from the news network, as well as breaking news notifications and archived segments, the CNN app gives news junkies plenty of content. But like other TV-Everywhere experiences, viewers must log in and prove they’re cable subscribers.
ESPN. The sports news network’s WatchESPN app also provides live video feeds from four of its channels: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3 and ESPNU. Although only available to customers of three pay-TV providers today (Time Warner Cable, Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks), the app has been extremely popular, attracting millions of downloads.
HBO Go. When it comes to cable iPad apps, HBO is clearly the leader in user experience and breadth of content. The premium cable network has made a large number of movies available, as well as every episode of every HBO Original Series. The only catch? You have to sign in using a cable login for access.
Max Go. Like HBO Go, Cinemax’s iPad app takes advantage of authentication to make its content available to paying cable subscribers. It has considerably less premium content than its sister network’s app, but instead features a wide variety of adult film titles in its “Max After Dark” section.
NBC. NBC is the latest broadcaster to make full-length episodes available online, on an ad-supported basis. There’s no authentication system, which means anyone can download the app and use it to catch up on episodes, as well as get news, browse clips and check out exclusive multimedia assets. Those features are useful, but clearly the content is what will attract users.
TBS and TNT. Time Warner extended its number of TV-Everywhere experiences, launching new iPad apps for its comedy- and drama-focused cable channels. Once logged in, both give viewers access to full-length shows from the cable networks. While the volume of content isn’t nearly as extensive as say, HBO, it’s a nice value-add for the channels.
Cablevision. Cablevision might have the most extensive selection of iPad-friendly content of all the pay-TV operators. It was one of the first cable companies to make its full channel lineup available for live streaming — as long as the subscriber is in his or home. But its iPad app also has an on-demand library available. The one big drawback is that Cablevision is one of the few operators to not have struck a deal with HBO for access to its content.
Comcast. Comcast was one of the first and most ambitious operators to enter the iPad app store, with an app that gives a wide range of on-demand content available for viewing on Apple’s tablet. While Comcast had announced its intention to make live video streams available within the home, those plans have yet to come to fruition. At the same time, it includes search and navigation system that enable viewers to find their favorite programs across live TV, DVR, traditional VOD and (when available) on-demand on the device.
Dish Network. While other operators have built streams directly into their apps, Dish Network has taken a bit of a different tack: It’s leveraged Sling-loaded DVRs and set-top boxes to enable its subscribers to stream live and pre-recorded TV programming to laptops and mobile devices. While it’s a novel way to get around striking TV-Everywhere deals for mobile devices, it also means that subscribers need specialized equipment in the home to use these apps.
Time Warner Cable. Earlier this year, Time Warner Cable stirred up some controversy when it released the first live streaming app from a cable network. The app offered subscribers the ability to watch live video from a number of networks within the home. The only catch is that Time Warner Cable didn’t clear the service with networks beforehand and found many partners unhappy that it was making their programming available on the mobile device without licensing it.
The killer apps for killer apps
The goal, for both cable networks and for distributors, is to give paying subscribers access to as much content as is possible, but most applications today include only a portion of the content that viewers want. No single app combines all the live and on-demand videos viewers desire. That said, there are a number of things that both can do to create a quality second-screen experience for users.
The most important thing for networks and distributors to accomplish is collecting all available content and putting it in as many places as possible. For networks, that means making their apps available on cable and satellite systems. HBO Go, for instance, is available in about 80 percent of pay-TV households.
Meanwhile, for operators, it’s important to have as much content as possible. From this perspective, Cablevision might be the leader; not only does it offer live feeds of channels within the home, it also has an extensive library of on-demand content. Other operators with live-only or on-demand-only content may be at a disadvantage.
In both cases, business rules and the licensing deals between networks and operators are getting in the way of the anytime, anywhere access that viewers crave. But as those issues get worked out, app makers will need to differentiate themselves not on the content that is available — which should more or less be the same across distributors — but by the actual user experience.
Search and discovery
With a wide variety of content available on these apps, one of the most important ways for app makers to differentiate themselves is with an intuitive search and discovery mechanism. Making it easy for viewers to find the content that they want, and to suggest new content to viewers, is one way to keep them engaged and loyal to the brand.
In the search realm, Comcast has an easy-to-use interface for finding content. With an integrated search box, Comcast users can seek TV and movie titles across traditional TV, cable VOD and streaming options on the app. HBO Go, while limited to the network’s own content, also provides an easy way for viewers to find shows and they want to watch, through search as well as clearly defined categories for shows, movies and other content.
It’s one thing to point viewers to the programming they already know; another challenge is to offer suggestions based on consumer viewing habits. Netflix, for instance, has built a strong business largely on the success of its recommendation engine. Networks and operators can learn from this example: By introducing users to new content, those appmakers could prompt more viewership not only on the app but during live broadcasts as well.
Bookmarks and season passes
One of the killer ideas for applications like HBO Go is to give viewers the option to stop watching a show on one platform — say, the iPad — to pick it back up elsewhere — in a web browser or on another mobile device. That’s the type of intuitive viewing experience that should be incorporated into all streaming applications in the future.
Another idea that HBO integrates well is the ability to schedule shows that are currently in-season to be bookmarked or added to a user’s watchlist, once it becomes available within the app. HBO can do so because it doesn’t depend as much on ad revenue, bringing in the bulk of its sales from subscriptions sold by affiliates. As a result, it doesn’t really care if a show is watched live, on-demand or on any number of streaming platform.
More traditional ad-based networks might not want to make it easier for users to tune in to new episodes on the iPad. After all, that could possibly cannibalize revenues they get during the live broadcast of a show. However, adding a watchlist provides a better user experience and could create more brand loyalty for fans.
In the battle for consumer attention, context wins
The most important lesson from all of the apps discussed above is that it’s not enough to have a lot of great content or distribution. At some point, most apps from operators will have all the same programming available as their competitors. And most cable network apps will have worked out deals to be available on all pay-TV systems. So differentiation based on content selection or availability won’t play into the equation.
Instead, to provide additional value to viewers, networks will need to make it easier for users to find the shows they want to watch within their apps, particularly because they have so many more content choices. Furthermore, app makers need to reduce the number of limitations users face when accessing content as much as possible. Building an app that only has live streams and only works in the home might not cut it when competitors allow out-of-home access to live streams on their apps, as well as a rich on-demand video library.
It’s those apps that not only have great content, but actually make it easy to access, that will be best positioned to retain viewer interest and ensure that subscribers tune into their content.