Something smells fishy about that Comcast–Apple TV story

News that Apple (S AAPL) is talking to Comcast (S CMCSK) about building a joint TV service offering took the internet by storm Sunday. But details and timing of the story seem just too good to be true.

The Wall Street Journal reported late Sunday that Apple was talking to Comcast to launch a live TV service, which would run on an Apple-built device, but use Comcast’s cable infrastructure, and bypass any potential internet slow-downs by essentially running as a managed service. That quickly resulted in critics crying foul for violating the spirit of net neutrality — but the real deal breaker here seems to be Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

Apple and Comcast both want to own the experience

On the surface, the story seems like yet another Apple TV rumor. Apple has been for some time trying to figure out how to capture the living room, and most recently, it had been talking to cable companies to basically build a better cable box. The idea was, according to several reports over the last two years, that Apple would present live TV programming with an Apple look and feel, but in partnership with cable companies, and thus without the need to buy the rights to each and every network.

One of the cable empires mentioned in those previous reports was Time Warner Cable. Now, Comcast is buying Time Warner Cable, so it would only make sense that Apple would continue those talks with Comcast, right?

Well, not so fast. Comcast has long been the company most concerned about owning the relationship with the customer. For example, Comcast subscribers haven’t been able to access HBO’s HBO Go app on the Roku because the cable company would like customers to go through its own apps instead.

And, in all fairness, Comcast is also one of the pay TV operators that has invested the most resources into building next-generation pay TV experiences for its customers, including its X1 set-top-box, its impending cloud DVR and its upcoming X2 platform. It’s unlikely that Comcast executives would feel the need for Apple to build the company a better TV user interface.

That’s some curious timing for a dicey issue

Now take that already unlikely scenario, and add another red herring: managed services. Apple wants Comcast to treat its service separate from the public internet, and ensure that it’s not subject to last-mile congestion when the rest of the neighborhood is busy binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix (S NFLX), according to the Wall Street Journal.

On the surface, that’s again something that we have heard about before. Comcast already treats its own TV Everywhere app on the Xbox 360 as a managed service, and for example exempts any video streams requested through that app from its data caps. Net neutrality activists have long taken issue with this, but the FCC decided not to go after managed services after it got push-back from ISPs.

But the real issue here is not net neutrality, or at least it’s not the primary issue. Comcast has been subject to strict conditions about how it deals with competitors ever since it merged with NBC, and chances are, those conditions will be extended and possibly even tightened when the merger with Time Warner Cable goes through.

Shining a light on managed services just when the severity of these conditions is up for debate seems like a very strange coincidence indeed. It’s almost as if someone said: Hey, here is this big operator that is soon going to own 30 percent of the country’s pipes going into people’s homes, and it wants to strike a special deal with Apple. Shouldn’t regulators make sure that others get the same treatment? For example, what about Dish, DirecTV or Sony, all of which are looking to compete with Comcast with their own TV offerings?

Call me a skeptic

That’s why I don’t believe that we will see a service like the one painted by the Wall Street Journal anytime soon. Now, I’m sure the two companies have discussed this, just like they have probably discussed a whole range of other options. But that this one surfaces right now seems just a little too convenient.

Image courtesy of Flickr user  Robert S. Donovan.