Parsing the latest rumor about Apple’s TV plans

In a story published Thursday, the New York Post has what appears to be new evidence that Apple(s AAPL) “plans to launch a streaming TV service by Christmas.” At first glance, it’s a pretty compelling and sensational story… But take a closer look at what the article is actually reporting, and it doesn’t seem like Apple is creating its own bundle of video channels at all.

Here are the pertinent details, as the Post lays them out:

  • Apple is pitching the idea of offering channels as apps for its devices, including its Apple TV set-top box.
  • It’s unclear whether it would group the apps together and charge a fee — similar to a cable TV subscription — or offer the channels on an a-la-carte basis.
  • Apple has tried to get cable operators to work with it to improve the accessibility and look of video services and in the process dump their clunky cable boxes in favor of sleek Apple devices.
  • Apple hasn’t given up, however, and is said to be pursuing deals with telecom companies such as Verizon(s VZW) and AT&T(s T). It hopes to get traction with a single player in hopes of pulling the rest of them along.

Frankly, I don’t know who the Post‘s sources are, but putting aside the sensationalist lead paragraphs, and based solely on the supporting evidence provided by the story, Apple doesn’t seem to be building out a streaming service. What it sounds like to me is that Apple’s Eddie Cue has been meeting with executives from content owners and distributors — the networks and the cable and IPTV companies — and trying to get them to build apps for the next generation of its Apple TV products.

Even look at some of the supporting quotes from media executives in the New York Post story:

  • “They want everything for nothing,” said [one] media executive.
  • “They want to create the interface, and they wanted to work with the cable guys to manage bandwidth across the TV and broadband pipeline,” said [another] source familiar with the talks.

If that’s the case, Apple’s plans for TV services seem to be not all that different from how it has partnered with content owners for the iPad or other mobile devices built on iOS. It wants content providers to create apps for its platform — for free — with it controlling the interface and how users access and navigate the content.

All of this has been reported to different degrees in the past, including stories in Bloomberg and The Globe and Mail in which Apple has been in discussions with operators about partnering to bring their live and on-demand TV services onto its video platform. (I wrote about why Apple would and should partner with carriers in this post.)

The key bit of tension here appears to be that the networks and distributors expect Apple to license their content for a new range of TV devices. They don’t want to build free apps that would just help Apple sell devices without getting paid for them, believing that those apps could potentially cannibalize their broadcast and cable TV audiences. And they’re also probably not very keen on Apple’s “apps as channels” plan, in which they would lose control over how their content is browsed or navigated, and how it would likely be displayed on the TV alongside apps from streaming video services like Netflix(s NFLX).

But all of that is a whole different story from what the Post and others imply when they say Apple is “pushing ahead” with its video ambitions. There’s no real supporting evidence in the article to suggest that Apple is looking to build a bundled streaming service of its own, just that it’s trying to corral content owners and distributors into making their content available as apps for a new group of TV devices.