Providing consumers with apps so they can watch their favorite content all day long? These days, that seems like a no-brainer. But gathering the licensing rights from syndicators and producers is, in a word, complicated.
At this month’s upfront presentations, ABC kicked off the week by introducing its Watch ABC app, which will allow viewers to see a live stream of ABC TV stations. The app will first be available to viewers of WABC New York and WPVI Philadelphia. Later this summer, Watch ABC will roll out in the six other ABC-owned markets: KABC Los Angeles, WLS Chicago, KGO San Francisco, KTRK Houston, WTVD Raleigh-Durham and KFSN Fresno.
Turner announced similar apps during upfronts week for TNT and TBS. Turner already offers 24/7 live streams of CNN and HLN, but those networks are easier to provide, because Turner produces—and thus owns the rights to—the majority of the content that airs on those nets. TNT and TBS air a great deal of syndicated programming, such as NBCUniversal’s The Office and Warner Bros.’ The Big Bang Theory, as well as programming produced by non-Turner-owned studios. All of those streaming rights have to be acquired before those apps can go live.
The methods for acquiring those rights vary. Since this part of the TV business is still new enough that streaming rights are not baked into syndication sales contracts, companies often have to return to producers and distributors to make the inquiries.
“Prior to launching this app, we had to walk this through with every single rights holder, tell them what we were doing and then ask for the rights,” says Albert Cheng, executive VP and chief product officer, digital media, Disney/ABC Television Group.
ABC Owned TV Stations air such syndicated programs as CBS Television Distribution’s Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and Rachael Ray, as well as Sony Pictures Television’s Dr. Oz. Those stations also air shows—such as Live! With Kelly and Michael, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Katie—that are produced by Disney-owned entities, so those rights are relatively easy to obtain. All rights for everything that airs on the ABC Owned TV Stations are cleared, according to a Disney/ABC representative, so streaming apps for those stations will be ready to go this summer.
But the necessity of clearing programming rights will slow down this process as the app heads out to affiliates. Hearst, the station group that airs the most ABC affiliates, is on board to launch the Watch ABC app in its 13 ABC station markets, including Boston, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Milwaukee. Agreements with other station groups are expected to be announced prior to the launch of the fall season, according to ABC.
Station groups also have to set agreements with the cable operators that distribute them in local markets so that viewers can authenticate use of the app through each pay- TV distributor. For example, if a viewer’s cable operator is Comcast, that viewer will need to authenticate through Comcast before being able to use the app on his mobile devices. That method is becoming standard industry practice, with NBCUniversal using it for its live-streaming Olympics app last summer and Disney using it to stream its cable networks Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior.
ABC’s app will be able to detect someone’s geographic location, so when a viewer is in New York, he’ll watch WABC on the app. When he’s in Los Angeles, he’ll watch KABC. If he travels to a market where the ABC affiliate is not yet being offered, he won’t be able to use it. That consideration does not apply to national cable networks, such as TBS and TNT, which are available across the country.
Advertisements will be sold for the app in much the same way they are sold on TV stations, with national time handled by ABC and local handled by the local station. National ads that appear in syndicated content will need to be handled by the ad sales partner of the syndicator. Ads that air on the TV station would be cleared to air on the app; otherwise, a new app-only ad could be inserted into the stream. Rights to air ads have to be cleared exactly as rights for programming do.
Ultimately, ABC plans to use dynamic ad insertion to target ads to viewers, much like Google does today on websites, with ads targeted to viewers’ interests.
“We look at this as a new way of getting our network that is being provided to you by your pay-TV provider,” says Cheng. “You can get ABC over the air and in other ways, and this is just one new way to get it.”
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