ABC Declares War on Cord Cutters with Live-TV App — Delayed Streaming to Follow

ABC is really hoping you'll hang on to your cable subscription, and is taking a couple of new steps to make sure of it.

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ABC is really hoping you’ll hang on to your cable subscription, and is taking a couple of new steps to make sure of it.

This week, the network will add live streaming video to its iPhone and iPad apps, the New York Times reports. However, the feature will only work if you have a cable or satellite-TV subscription.

That’s not all. The report also claims that in the future, ABC will “withhold its most recent TV episodes from the free versions of Hulu and, further limiting access to paying subscribers of cable and satellite providers only.”

ABC’s existing iOS app offers on-demand TV shows only. The addition of live TV will let cable and satellite subscribers watch local news or talk shows in real time, and from anywhere within their local broadcast area. The Times’ story mostly focuses on this new feature, describing the work that went into it and how ads will work.

But the idea of delayed streams for ABC shows is more mysterious. The Times’ story doesn’t say when ABC will begin holding back its streams, or how long nonpaying viewers will have to wait to see new episodes. An ABC representative would not provide any additional details to us.

At the moment, Fox is the only major broadcast network that delays new streaming episodes on Hulu and its own website. To get next-day streaming, you must subscribe to Hulu Plus or have a cable or satellite subscription. (Not surprisingly, the delay caused a big spike in piracy for Fox shows a couple of years ago.)

ABC has been interested in the idea for a while. In 2011, Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of Disney (which owns ABC), said the company would “push the window back or make access to the programming more difficult or later, except if customers are authenticated as a subscriber.”

If ABC follows through, it’ll amount to a big pushback against cord cutting, the concept of throwing out your cable or satellite subscription in favor of cheaper streaming options.



Although cord cutting isn’t new, it’s picking up steam, especially among younger demographics. A recent survey by Nielsen found 5 million zero-TV households, compared with 2 million in 2007, with nearly two-thirds of the group under 45 years old. By rewarding cable subscribers, and punishing cord cutters, ABC is hoping to prevent — or at least slow down — the collapse of the traditional pay-TV business model.

Lately, broadcasters have become nervous about Aereo, a service that lets you stream broadcast TV to phones, tablets, laptops and set-top boxes. Aereo’s service, which uses microantennas stored at the company’s own facilities, exists without the blessing of companies like ABC. Broadcasters have tried suing Aereo, but haven’t been able to shut it down, so now they’re trying to compete in various ways. While ABC tries its own streaming apps, CBS recently invested in Syncbak, a company that handles mobile streaming for local broadcasts.

Broadcasters have also threatened a nuclear option of sorts. Fox, CBS and Univision have all said they’ll consider pulling their shows from over-the-air broadcasts if Aereo succeeds in court.

Although it’s good to see companies like ABC competing on features rather than merely making threats and filing lawsuits, artificial barriers to protect cable and satellite TV aren’t going to squash cord cutting. Nielsen’s recent survey on the phenomenon found that only 18% would consider subscribing to TV services, and the most popular reasons not to subscribe were cost and lack of interest.

In other words, cord cutting isn’t about replacing everything you’d get with a cable subscription, but about finding enough other things to do. And when you’re on a phone or a tablet, there’s plenty to do besides watching talk shows or local news from ABC. Live streaming may compel some users to hang on to their cable subscriptions, but it seems unlikely to lure younger cord cutters into expensive TV packages. At best, this is a short-term solution to a very long-term problem.