Apple pushing to add cable services to set-top box, according to report

Despite the chatter of the last few years, it’s been looking a lot less likely lately that Apple’s living room ambitions include an actual television set. Wednesday night brought more evidence that Apple(s AAPL) is keeping its eyes on home entertainment by sticking with its current set-top box form factor: The Wall Street Journal reports that Apple’s been looking to get cable companies to offer their live content through Apple TV. It’s very similar to previous reports over the past couple months regarding Apple’s efforts to woo the cable industry and suggests that little progress has been made.

Apple is talking to some of the biggest U.S. cable providers, but no deals are in place, according to the report. The WSJ’s sources do not entirely rule out a television set in the future, but it sounds like, for now, Apple executives are just trying to convince the cable guys to offer their content via the set-top box:

Whether the device under discussion is an iteration of [current Apple TV] hardware or a more sophisticated box is unclear.

Two people briefed on the matter said the technology involved could ultimately be embedded in a television. Apple has worked on prototypes for televisions in the past, according to people briefed on the projects.

Right now, Apple TV is $99 and offers streaming content from iTunes, as well as Netflix(s NFLX), Hulu Plus, and a variety of pro sports through apps from MLB, NHL and NBA, most of which require subscription plans. Apple sells both one-off TV and movie shows and rentals, and also offers iTunes subscriptions to some TV series. But no subscriber would confuse what Apple offers with a true alternative to a cable box.

Getting cable companies to come around is going to be tough: as it does with the music industry and wireless carriers, Apple is the one that would own the relationship between their content (or service) and the end customer. In a March report that Apple was in talks to get cable companies, some of those cable sources complained anonymously to the New York Post that Apple’s offer wasn’t a great deal for them, one saying, Apple wanted “everything for nothing,” “to create the [service’s] interface” and “work with cable guys to manage bandwidth across the TV and broadband pipeline.”

Apple has a ways to go to catch up with Microsoft in the living room. Microsoft’s Xbox Live(s MSFT) service is in many more millions of homes and the company has been able to strike deals with both content providers directly like HBO and ESPN(s DIS) and also has cable partnerships currently in place, offering content from AT&T U-Verse(s T), Comcast (s CMCSA)and Verizon(s VZ).

Apple’s set-top, which was originally labeled a “hobby,” got off to a slow start after launching in 2007, but after a price cut and redesign in 2010, has been picking up steam. Last month Apple announced that sales of the box have more than doubled in the last year: in 2011, it sold 2.8 million units. Between January and July this year, it’s already sold 4 million.

This post was corrected at 8:27 p.m. Previously it said none of Apple TV’s content was live, however MLB, NHL and NBA do offer live streaming sports.