Apple TV continues the unbundling of traditional television

Apple CEO TIm Cook speaks about Apple TV during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California
Apple CEO TIm Cook speaks about Apple TV during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, September 9, 2015. Reuters/Beck Diefenbach - RTSCYF
Photograph by Beck Diefenbach — Reuters

In some ways, the latest iteration of Apple TV isn’t all that different from its predecessor: It’s still a square device that hooks up to your television and streams video from multiple sources like Hulu and Netflix much like other devices, such as Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV. But Apple is trying to do something very different under the hood—and in the process it could accelerate the unbundling and disintermediation that TV content providers are already experiencing.

As we’ve discussed previously at Fortune, the new Apple TV adds a whole OS layer and app-store metaphor to the TV experience, which more or less duplicates the experience that millions of users have already become accustomed to on the iPhone and iPad. The operating system is called tvOS, and providers like Netflix now become apps that exist on top of that layer.

That’s not a huge departure from what already happens on the Apple TV and other similar boxes, in a way. Channels or providers just become apps, and they get installed through a central app store that Apple (AAPL) controls. Although the new TV is launching with only a handful of traditional sources such as Hulu and Netflix (NFLX), Apple says it will be opening the platform for other content providers over time.

In addition to this re-architecting of the platform, however, Apple has also added one interesting feature that could have potentially far-reaching effects on the world of video content, and that is cross-app search. Using Siri, viewers can search for programming across all the video apps they have installed, whether it’s Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBO, Showtime, or other providers—and they can do so by using a movie or TV show title, genre, or even the names of individual actors.

Amazon (AMZN) and Roku both have cross-app or cross-provider search already, although Amazon’s search results give priority to its own video and TV library (which, of course viewers have to pay for). Still, by adding this feature to a platform that has as large a potential user-base as Apple TV, the company could accelerate a trend that is already underway in video, and that is the gradual decline of the TV provider brand.

Why? Because once users can search across every potential source of TV or movie content, in a way it almost ceases to matter where that content comes from. Not that brands like Netflix or HBO stop being worth anything, but they arguably become less compelling as destinations—in much the same way that newspapers and magazines have become less powerful as content destinations, thanks to the unbundling power of the web.

This disintermediation effect is why Netflix cares so much about creating and owning its own unique content, including TV shows like Narcos. It cares a lot less about retaining the rights to libraries of movie content like the ones it used to get from Epix, the consortium owned by Lion’s Gate (LGF), MGM (MGM), and Paramount (PGRE) (a deal that expired recently). And the reason it doesn’t care as much about that content is that it didn’t have exclusive rights—in other words, it was just another conduit for those movies.

If TV users can use Siri to search for “that James Bond movie” and have it delivered to their TV sets without even having to know what provider it is coming from, then those content distributors become largely interchangeable content containers or pipelines. That is a difficult place to be from a business perspective. In that kind of environment, it’s more important than ever to be unique and distinctive.

Of course, Apple TV could be a huge flop. The company has shown that it is world-class at building hardware, but its ability to build and run appealing cloud services is still very much an open question. As Stratechery analyst Ben Thompson points out in a recent post, Apple TV could easily wind up suffering from the same kinds of problems that the iPad has—namely, an app store with not much in it, since it arguably doesn’t provide enough ways for developers and content providers to monetize their apps.

But to the extent that it succeeds, Apple TV and its cross-platform search—not to mention the whole app-store platform model itself—will arguably help to extend the inevitable unbundling and disintermediation of traditional TV content providers. A good thing if you are a user, perhaps, but not so good if you are a traditional broadcast media company.

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