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Here’s Why Apple’s TV Service Won’t Launch Nationwide

Striking deals with hundreds of local stations will take a lot of time

Want access to Apple’s long-rumored live TV service, once it launches sometime later this year, in, say, rural Maine or Wisconsin? Good luck with that.

News that Apple is looking to add local broadcast TV stations to its streaming service doesn’t just indicate that the service will launch later than expected — it also means that Apple inevitably won’t be able to launch in every U.S. market if CEO Tim Cook wants to get the service up and running in the near future at all.

Apple won’t be ready to announce its long-rumored TV service at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June, according to a Recode report, which notes that the company has yet to strike deals with programmers for the service. According to that report, Apple is also looking to add live streaming feeds for local broadcasters like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — and that complicates things a lot.

Broadcasters generally own and operate stations in major metropolitan markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. But in smaller cities and rural areas, they work with local affiliates — stations that license their content and brand, but also produce their own local news and other shows. Some of these affiliates are owned by major media companies like Hearst, Sinclair or Tribune, while others are still truly local businesses.

Take CBS, for example: The broadcaster owns and operates 16 network stations in major markets, and has affiliate agreements with some additional 200 stations. And when CBS launched its All Access live TV streaming service in October, it did so only in its own markets.

Following the launch, CBS spent months striking multiple deals with local affiliates. But as of last week, the service was still just available in 94 markets, home to 64% of all U.S. households.

Apple won’t just have to strike similar deals with all CBS affiliates, but also with around 200 NBC affiliates, close to 240 ABC affiliates and around 180 Fox affiliates. Oh, and Apple TV owners probably would also like their dose of PBS every now and then, so you’ll have to add those local public broadcasters to the list as well. That’s a lot of deals, even for a company that has as much cash at its disposal as Apple does.

That’s not to say streaming local TV is impossible — it will just take a lot longer than the approach that Dish took for its Sling TV service, which to date doesn’t offer access to any broadcast networks. In the end, Apple will have to decide whether to offer a patchwork of programming, with some broadcasters not available in some markets for months, or whether to instead launch in most major markets first, and then slowly add rural customers over time.

For a company that focused on polish and perfection, the patchwork approach just doesn’t seem like something Apple would do — which is bad news for anyone waiting to subscribe in many of those smaller markets.

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