×

Apple’s new TV plan is a TV guide

Tim Cook doesn’t want to sell you TV anymore. He wants to tell you what’s on TV.

Last year Apple shelved its plan to sell you TV. Now Apple has a new plan: Tell you what's on TV, and help you watch it.

Apple has started talking to TV programmers and other video companies about creating a digital TV guide that would work on both Apple TV boxes and other Apple devices, like iPhones.

The idea is to let users see what kind of programming is available in video apps made by the likes of HBO, Netflix and ESPN, without having to open up each app individually, and to play shows and movies with a single click.

An Apple employee works near a screen with the new Apple TV
Jonathan Alcorn | Reuters
An Apple employee works near a screen with the new Apple TV

That is: Apple's guide would tell you what's on TV. Except now TV is apps.

Industry sources say Apple's plans are an outgrowth of the TV service it wanted to launch last year. The difference is that in 2015, Apple wanted to sell TV programming directly to consumers, and provide them with a new interface that would make it easy find the stuff they paid for.

More from Recode:
Why Apple walked away from TV (for now)
Here's what Apple really meant to say today about its plans to sell web video
'Apps are the Ffuture of TV'? Not so fast!

Now Apple is just working on the interface. It is letting programmers, distributors and customers work out the money part among themselves.

Apple declined to comment.

Apple laid out the first part of this plan in public in June, at its WWDC event, when it announced a "single sign-on" plan that's supposed to let pay TV customers access video programmers' apps without having to continually provide logins and passwords. If pay TV distributors sign on to the plan, it would let users access and download multiple "TV Everywhere" apps more easily.

Since then, Apple has begun talking to programmers about providing metadata about what's in their apps so that Apple could build a guide.

Apple already has extensive data about many video programmers' apps, which it uses for its Siri-powered search function. So it's not clear whether Apple needs more information to make the guide work, or just wants programmers' blessing to include them in the guide.

A digital TV guide could have obvious upside for consumers. And for Apple, too: Making a constellation of apps and programming easier to navigate would make Apple's hardware more valuable.

And if Apple's guide became a popular way for people to access video, then Apple could have real power in the TV ecosystem — power it had in the music industry when it built the iTunes store in 2003, but doesn't have now when it talks to networks and studios.

But TV industry executives I've talked to view Apple's plans as a mixed bag. They like the idea of making their individual shows easier to find, but they worry that moving consumers' focus from their individual apps to a universal guide will reduce their power to promote their other shows.

Some of them also suggest that Apple's plan would irk pay TV distributors like Comcast* and Charter, who are used to controlling TV navigation through their own guides.

CNBC is owned by Comcast. CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.