Apps from cable operators and programmers have the same goal in mindto demonstrate the value of a cable or satellite subscription.
But in the quest to show that cable subscriptions are worth the money, both sides end up competing to lure the consumer to different apps that feature the same content. Sports fans, for example, need to choose between the WatchESPN app or Comcast's Xfinity TV GO app to watch the same programs.
There's also fear from operators that if programming providers build up large audiences through their own apps, they could one day go "over the top" or dispense with cable. One of the most closely watched issues in pay TV is when popular streaming service HBO Go will go direct to consumer.
Deals on programming last several years, so negotiations have to address how people might watch TV five or 10 years from now. One large media company was pushing for clauses to protect its apps in case a cable company one day adopted usage-based Internet pricing, according to people familiar with the matter.
If cable companies one day make customers pay for how much broadband Internet they use at home, they could offer use of their own TV viewing apps free to customers, which would give them an edge over the apps made by media companies.
Some are trying to bridge the gap. The third-largest U.S. cable company, Cox Communications, offers "Contour," a well-reviewed iPad app that integrates 30 apps within it, the only offering on the market so far to keep all the apps under one roof.
When TV viewers want to use an app to watch a show, they are likely to turn to channels and networks they know, such as WatchESPN, WATCH ABC or HBO Go, said David Wolf, managing director of Accenture's digital service practice in North America, whose firm has been gathering research on viewing from a global consumer survey of 12,000 consumers.
To be sure, usage of these apps is still small compared with how many people watch TV the traditional way. But it is growing quickly. The "Watch ESPN" app is available in 55 million U.S. homes and has been downloaded 24 million times, ESPN said, and minutes viewed on the app on mobile devices is up more than 6.5 times from two years ago.
The next place viewers turn to are apps that do not require a cable subscription, such as Netflix or Hulu, Wolf said. Only then, in third place, will viewers turn to apps made by their cable or satellite company, he said.
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One hurdle facing the world of media apps is that users often need to figure out their cable account information to log in. But it's getting easier. Some operators are letting customers use Facebook credentials or a phone number to sign in while cable operators are working on technology for automatic authentication so a viewer does not have to sign in at all.
Simonette Lowy, a 26-year-old fashion designer in Los Angeles who uses DirecTV's app to set her DVR recordings, said with so much choice out there, it is hard to know which apps have best streaming quality or carry which shows.
"Why are there so many? It's too much. People just want everything in one place," Lowy said.