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What’s it going to take for Apple to release an iTV? Four letters: ESPN

Since October 2010, Apple fans and the media alike have been poised like hungry dogs waiting for wayward table scraps, eagerly awaiting some clue that Apple is closer to unleashing a revolutionary TV on the world. Every year, we’ve gotten a few bits of encouragement, but only enough to whet our appetites. We can only wait for so long until our interest withers up and dies, or some other company comes along with the steak and lobster dinner of TV. Apple needs to make a move, and it needs to do it now. And the good news is, it might just be closer than ever. All Apple needs to do is land a deal with ESPN, and then it’s going to start raining Apple-branded TVs up in here. 

Apple doesn’t have a problem making stellar hardware. A TV from Apple is likely to be beautiful in a way that only Apple can make it, and that alone will get people salivating. But Apple knows it can’t break into – no, make that dominate –  a well-established market unless it can turn that market on its head. It needs to do to TV what it did to music with iTunes. But to do that, it must succeed where others have so far failed. It needs to secure sweet deals with networks to bring content to viewers without cable companies stinking up the scene with their ugly black boxes and terrible user-interfaces. It needs to appeal to would-be cord-cutters still sitting on the fence in a way that Roku, Google, Samsung, LG, and Sony haven’t.

All Apple needs to do is land a deal with ESPN, and then it’s going to start raining Apple-branded TVs up in here.

But Apple doesn’t have to shoot for the moon and lock down deals with a wide swath of networks to be wildly successful. All it has to do is deliver the one thing today’s over-the-top solutions can’t: live sports.

Say what you want about the appeal of cult TV shows on premium networks like Dexter, Game of Thrones and Homeland, or even those on basic networks like Breaking Bad. Sure, those shows have a notable draw, but they can all eventually be watched online, and cord cutters have learned how to be patient. But live sports are a completely different animal. You can’t wait 24 hours to watch the Superbowl on Hulu, folks. Sports takes place in the here and now, and sports fans demand access to their games. They’ll even pay a premium for it, as evidenced by the sports packages that sell so well on cable and satellite services.

Right now, any cord cutter with an antenna can watch live sports programming on any of the major networks in glorious HD – for free. But that only gets sports fans part of the way there. In order to get them to buy into an Internet-based TV delivery model, you must offer ESPN. If Apple can do that, people will trample geniuses to open their wallets wide to get Apple’s precious TV. But can the company pull it off? 

Recent news that ESPN has been in early talks to potentially offers its channels through an Internet-based TV service indicate that the network is preparing to play ball. ESPN may only be putting its feelers out there right now, but its fair to say that if any company could woo ESPN into braving uncharted territory, it would be Apple. And even if Apple can’t sign ESPN exclusively, when the sports network does decide to bypass traditional distribution channels for an Internet-based one, it will pave the way for other networks to do the same. At that point, the Internet TV floodgates will be wide open. The only question is: Does Apple still have what it takes to lock down the best content deal?

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