U.S. cable and satellite television operators, already locking horns with programmers over subscriber fees, are now squaring off over the mobile apps that viewers are increasingly using to watch TV.
Internet-based services such as Netflix have gotten millions of viewers accustomed to catching shows on tablets and phones. And as the incumbents are getting in on the act with apps of their own, that has become a sticking point dragging out major programming negotiations, as in the case of Dish Network and Walt Disney, which are trying to reach a new rights agreement.
These disputes increase the dangers of further blackouts and may mean delays in the development of apps that combine the content, technology and marketing muscle of both sides of the industry.
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Missteps by cable and satellite operators also raise the danger that some consumers will rely more on Netflix, and other such services, and cancel their pay-TV subscriptions, causing a major drop in industry revenue. Meanwhile, both sides are scrambling to draw consumers to their apps and get the most appealing and profitable deals in place for the future.
Attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week will sample apps across a range of mobile and connected TVs. Dish will show off a new version of its "Dish Anywhere" app, which enables live viewing and lets users transfer shows from their DVR to mobile devices and watch them offline, a feature that has upset media companies.
And it is not just Dish: Time Warner Cable, Comcast, DirecTV and Verizon FiOs have all created apps in recent years, while the largest content companies, including Disney, Viacom and Time Warner's HBO and Turner Broadcasting System, have countered with their own. (Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.)
"Both sides are paranoid. The operators think that if the programmers can create a one-to-one relationship with the consumer, some day they peel off and become their own HBO," said an executive at a media company involved in content negotiations who was not authorized to talk to the media.
Among the areas being fought over are advertising revenue and user data. Ad sales on the platforms are still small and hard to estimate, but revenue is expected to grow as more viewing moves to mobile devices, said Jeff Minsky, director of emerging media at media agency OMD. Both sides are trying to figure out the best way to split that revenue.
Media companies also want to gather and crunch all the data about viewing habits they can to sell to advertisers. The companies receive less high quality data when people watch network programming through an app from Dish Network or DirecTV instead of using their own apps.
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"The fight is in the details. Who is controlling the user experience, who is controlling the data and where is the experience taking place?" said another person involved in programming negotiations.
'Find it elsewhere'
Executives worry that not adapting to changing habits could send viewers away from cable altogether. Needham research analyst Laura Martin, citing PWC figures, estimates that in 2012 consumers paid $75 billion to U.S. pay-TV providers, $45 billion of which was reaped by content companies while $30 billion was kept by cable, satellite and telecommunications companies offering the TV services.
"There's no question more and more people will continue to consume whatever content they are looking for on a variety of devices, not just the television set. If we are not evolving and providing our content in the way people want to consume it, then people will find it elsewhere," said ESPN's senior vice president of digital distribution, Matt Murphy, who oversees the business side of Disney's viewing apps.
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.