App Watch: WatchESPN

Major cable companies such as Time Warner and Comcast have been rolling out iPhone and iPad apps over the past month, in an attempt to add another screen to the households currently connected by cable boxes. Cable providers have been striking deals with individual media companies to offer specific channels on the app. Those channels are streamed exactly as they would be in the local area the user is viewing them from, commercials and all.
While the above service is similar to purchasing another TV and cable box, not all cable providers are willing to use that service. Having specific demands that weren’t easily met with the vanilla solution provided, ESPN has offered a more robust app for consumers and also a new advertising venue in similar fashion to ESPN3.com. Currently, the app allows you to view clips of past shows and also live streaming, including games, while over WiFi or 3G, a feature the cable providers apps can’t offer.
“With regards to the apps that the cable providers put out,” said Damon Phillips, vp of ESPN3.com, whose team developed the Watch ESPN app. “From a business side alone, being able to serve fans on multiple devices is a good thing for the industry.”
ESPN is in a tricky position. It earns hefty fees from cable companies for the rights to carry its family of channels. Those fees are what makes it wildly profitable.
While the technical reason for the main ESPN channels to not be included on the cable company apps is due to the inability to blackout certain programing, there are heavy advantages for ESPN to release its own app: in-stream advertising. Currently, when you launch the app, there is no advertising available but that will change.
“We launched [ESPN3.com] without commercials and we started to add them back in as we went along,” Phillips said. “It’s really a tech limitation right now. We’re looking for ways to dynamically serve ads into the stream and its taking more time than we had thought.”
ESPN3.com currently uses FreeWheel for its in-stream advertising. While ESPN does receive the content directly and streams it to the device for Watch ESPN, the technology is not quite there yet on mobile. With the content being the same and performing nearly the same as television, ESPN made it clear that its advertising partners are not upset by the choice to consider this a different product, nor is there any rush to push ads onto the app.
“We wanted to get a good product out there first, let it grow, then figure out the best way to insert advertising.”
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