Sterne Agee

Steve Jobs' disruptive best-of-television service, revisited

December 28, 2011: 4:23 PM ET

As rumors of a "real" Apple TV heat up, ideas that could upend the industry resurface

Photo: Michael Copeland

In late 2009, the Wall Street Journal ran a story that sent shivers through the television industry.

Quoting unnamed sources familiar with Apple's (AAPL) negotiations, the Journal reported that CBS (CBS) and ABC (DIS) were seriously considering Steve Jobs' plan to offer TV subscriptions over the Internet.

One form those subscriptions might take, according to these sources, was a $30-per-month package of advertising-free shows from a bundle of top cable and broadcast networks -- something Apple was calling the "best of television."

Although the Journal reported that Apple was hoping to launch the service in 2010, it met fierce resistance, particularly from cable companies that reap tens of billions each year in advertising dollars and in the fees subscribers pay for access to channels they don't want in order to watch the handful of shows they do.

"You don't want to shoot a hole in the bucket to create another revenue stream," one media executive told the Journal at the time.

Apple's TV subscription service did not launch in 2010, obviously. Or in 2011, for that matter.

But the idea has not gone away. In a note to clients issued Wednesday, Sterne Agee's Shaw Wu noted that what's missing from Apple's current TV offering -- Apple TV coupled with the content available for purchase on iTunes -- is access to live broadcast television.

One way to get that access, he writes, is to have users subscribe to satellite or cable TV services, the way they do now.

But another way -- in his words "a more revolutionary, disruptive and differentiated way" -- would be to offer the content via the Internet, in a subscription service that sounds a lot like Jobs' original "best of television" idea.

"We continue to hear," Wu writes, "what AAPL would love to do is offer users the ability to choose their own customized programming, i.e., whichever channels/shows they want for a monthly subscription fee. This is obviously much more complicated from a licensing standpoint. And in our view, would change the game for television and give AAPL a big leg-up against the competition."

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