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Is Apple Giving Up on Live TV?

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It’s the rumor that refuses to die: Apple is going to make a TV. Or start a live-content platform. Or do some combination of those two things. For years we’ve been told by analysts, journalists, and network executives that the company that influenced how we listen to music, preen in coffee shops, and flake on friends also wants to change the way we watch television.

Tech visionary/hypebeast Steve Jobs is to thank for this persistent scuttlebutt. Shortly before his death in 2011, Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson that he had “cracked” the code for a modernized, seamless TV experience. “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,” Jobs said. “It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.” Cue years of fervent speculation that Apple was going to launch a smart TV or a utopian cable killer that would let us buy any television channel we want for 99 cents in the iTunes Store.

But alas, the time finally may have come to put this rumor to bed. At this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple put a big focus on the Apple TV, the actually-on-sale set-top box the company has been selling for a decade, as tech bloggers fantasized about a more disruptive offering. This year’s upgrades include the addition of Sling TV, a streaming service by Dish Network that delivers a small bundle of live television channels, such as CNN, Cartoon Network, and ESPN, for $20 per month.

Wait a minute — this is exactly the kind of product that industry insiders have been saying Apple wants to develop itself! Apple, of course, has final say on what apps are permitted in its ecosystem. If the company had a Sling-like offering in the works, wouldn’t it want to box competitors out of the living room as much as possible?

There are already plenty of streaming services suspiciously absent from one set-top box or another. You won’t find Sling TV, FX Now, or WatchESPN on the PS4, which is likely because Sony would prefer that you subscribe to its own livestreaming service, PlayStation Vue, rather than use Sling or cable-authenticated apps. Meanwhile, Amazon Video is missing from both Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast, apparently because Amazon can’t come to agreeable “business terms” with its rivals, according to CEO Jeff Bezos.

It stands to reason that Apple is ceding some App Store space to Sling because it no longer wants to — or can — launch a streaming service of its own. Instead of talking about channels in the traditional sense, the company has been bleating “the future of TV is apps” since unveiling an improved Apple TV last fall. More evidence that Apple won’t save us from Comcast: The tech giant has apparently stopped talking to broadcast networks like CBS about its live-TV initiative. (Apple declined to comment for this story.)

Analysts with less conductive tin-foil hats don’t think Sling’s presence necessarily begets iCable’s absence. Dan Cryan, a media analyst at IHS, says the kerfuffle over Amazon Video’s absence from Apple TV likely has to do with the fact that Apple takes a cut on all transactions that occur in its ecosystem, and Amazon doesn’t want to give up revenue in a low-margin business like digital movie rentals. He points out that Apple has generally been more amenable than some companies to having competing subscription services coexist with its own — Spotify is available on iOS, for instance, even though Apple is betting big on the largely similar Apple Music.

Still, with Apple already pitching live TV as one of Apple TV’s big selling points — via apps rather than a traditional channel bundle — there’s less reason to think the company will go through the trouble of battling the cable giants independently. “In a fundamental sense they are already in the TV business,” says Cryan, “just at a slightly different point in the value stream.”