Update: The new WATCH ABC app is live in the US store. As expected, streaming is available for NYC and Philadelphia residents only. After July 1, you'll have to verify that you subscribe to a TV provider to get live video, and "programming substitution may apply."
Ahead of ABC's spring upfront this coming Tuesday, May 14 ("upfronts" are the glitzy network presentations to get advertisers revved up about the coming season's programming), the New York Times' Brian Stelter found a scoop that has more to do with how we watch TV than which programs we watch.
Disney's ABC network plans to revise its iPad/iPhone app lineup by Tuesday to include free live streaming of ABC channels for viewers in two Northeast cities. The live streaming feature, which will appear as a "live" button in a new Watch ABC app (akin to ABC-owned ESPN's Watch ESPN app) set to replace the the existing ABC Player app, will be available to customers in New York and Philadelphia who can verify that they have access to ABC via a cable or satellite subscription.
GigaOm says that the service's requirement for pay TV subscription will kick in after a six-week introductory period, where it will be open to all comers. According to that post, the ABC live encoding will be powered by the same upLynk hybrid local/cloud streaming technology that's currently at work behind the company's Watch Disney app.
Stelter notes that ABC's programming currently appearing on ABC.com and Hulu Plus may be curtailed in the future, with longer delays before free-to-stream episodes appear; the most current content would be reserved for pay TV subscribers. This would undoubtedly drive cord-cutters somewhat batty.
The streaming feature will be iOS-only for now, and limited to those two markets (where the affiliate stations are owned by the parent company) while the network negotiates with affiliates in other cities. The first affiliate deal, with Hearst Television, will soon add live streaming to 13 additional cities like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Honolulu. Having NYC be one of the first launch markets means that ABC must be rooting for the New York Knicks (currently down 2-1 in a playoff series with Indiana) to go deep into the NBA playoffs, which the network is carrying this year.
This isn't the first device-centric live television play, by any means. Most US cable, satellite and fiber providers offer some flavor of live channel streaming, with varying marquee features and limitations. Some, like Time Warner Cable and Xfinity, restrict all-you-can-stream access to the subscriber's home WiFi network and offer a more limited channel lineup on the move. Verizon's FiOS app streams plenty of popular pay-TV channels on your home WiFi network, but no broadcast content. In the case of ABC's live channel stream, the branding for the network can move completely out from under the program provider's umbrella; that way, there are fewer distractions to lure eyeballs away from ABC's live and library content.
Customers with Dish Anywhere and the sleek Dish Explorer programming discovery app from the satellite TV provider may have the most flexibility: the company's Sling technology actually restreams anything the Dish receiver can show, including live TV on any channel or recorded DVR programming. (Most DVR recordings can even be transferred from the Dish Hopper receiver onto the iPad for later viewing, which would require an EyeTV or other approach with most providers.) But this approach does require plenty of home bandwidth, and can tie up your receiver; ABC's stream doesn't have those drawbacks.
If over the air TV is your thing, there are several iPad options out there. EyeTV's EyeTV Mobile adapter, for $99, adds an antenna to your tablet and delivers programming via the Dyle digital broadcast system. The MCV consortium behind Dyle includes NBC, Fox and Telemundo (but not ABC), so those networks are generally represented and available on the system. The legally challenged but still eagerly expanding startup Aereo doesn't share those channel limits; anything an antenna can see in the NYC metro area, Aereo will gladly deliver to your iPad or desktop browser for a monthly $8 fee. Aereo's one-antenna-per-user model is being contested by the networks, but so far they've not been able to put together a compelling legal case to stop the company from providing its service; in fact, it's expanding to Boston this month.
In many ways, ABC's move (which the network says was shifted up from a planned 2014 rollout; "We watch how people are behaving with their devices, and we really felt that we needed to move faster," said Disney/ABC Television Group co-chair Anne Sweeney) is of a piece with these other new-world-order programming options. Consumers are getting their television content via all sorts of pathways, and fewer and fewer of them are tied to a traditional primetime lineup at the network's convenience. Even this circumscribed step away from the default delivery of TV, with its leash of a pay subscription, says a lot about ABC's willingness to ride the wave forward rather than fighting to keep a hold on the status quo.
[Although the Steven P. Jobs Trust, led by the Apple co-founder's widow Laurene Powell Jobs, owns some 7.7 percent of Disney/ABC's outstanding shares, regulatory filings noted by Bloomberg suggest that the trust has no intention to influence Disney/ABC operations. –Ed.]