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When choosing which cable provider to sign a contract with, you will undoubtably check the channel guide to see which channels are included in the package to which you are about to subscribe. You may even go a bit further and check to see if includes the HD version of your favorite channels. What you likely will not do is check to see how many channels have allowed the cable provider to access their shows from within an app on the App Store.

Despite having a growing number of channels to choose from — 189 channels on average — Nielsen data shows that most homes view just 17 different channels. Using a list of broadcast networks, the 20 most watched cable networks of 2013, and some of the top premium channels, you will find that each and every one of the top 20 networks has an iOS app in the app store. The problem is that many of them may be of no use to you as some of your favorite channels’ content will not be accessible to you at all.

Top Cable Networks

Traditional over-the-air broadcast television

Local television stations, or affiliate stations, usually have apps that are free to use and do not require any sort of subscription to a major cable provider. The easiest way to find these apps is by searching in the App Store using your local stations call letters. With a style that is more like that of a local newspaper, these apps typically offer up local news, sports and weather forecasts. Some have started to simulcast live broadcasts at the times when they air their own produced shows locally.

ABC and FOX Login to Access

If you look at six of the main over-the-air television networks, you will find full episodes of prime time and late night shows you are interested in watching. What you may find surprising is that both ABC and FOX will require you to log on with your cable provider’s credentials in order to unlock premium content. NBC and The CW do not have this requirement and will allow you to catch up on your favorite shows by providing access to full episodes that have recently aired without a cable provider.

CBS, also void of such a restriction to content, has gone more social than the others by syncing with select programs using the microphone as they air. This provides a more communal watching experience as you can log on and share opinions about the CBS show you are watching.

iOS App links for 6 major broadcast networks:

Ad-supported basic cable channels

When it comes to accessing the full content for each of the basic cable channels using apps found in the App Store, you will need to log in with credentials provided by you cable provider. However, not every cable provider will be able to grant you access to the premium content within each network’s app.

Login to Access

Using a list of the top ten networks for 2013 and 20 of the nation’s leading cable providers, each network’s app is accessible by only 12 out of the 20 different cable providers listed. Looking at it the other way around, on average each cable provider can only access content on six of the 10 of the most watched networks’ apps. Either way you have about a 60 percent chance of being able to access the premium content of your favorite network. Comcast was the only provider that could access all 10 networks whereas Time Warner was one of the providers providing access to apps from just six networks.

As you start using multiple channels’ apps more and more, you will begin to see a pattern in the way that some of the channels apps are designed. And no, this is not entirely due to the fact that episode lists, channel guides and special features can only be organized in so many ways. This is because companies like bottle rocket and dreamsocket are responsible for the development of many of the network’s apps. It would be great if more networks worked with such developers and focused more on a consistent experience. I am not going to start watching a bad show just because it has a great app, and I certainly will not stop watching a great show due to the fact that the network it is on built a terrible app.

Cable Providers Access to Network Apps

iOS App links for the top 20 cable networks of 2013:

Premium cable channels

While all premium cable channels require you to have a subscription with a cable provider in order to access content, you will likely be asked to create a personal account with the service as well. Why the extra step is required is a mystery to me, especially since you cannot keep or log on to this account when switching cable providers. After switching from AT&T U-verse to Time Warner, I was forced to create a new accounts for several of the premium channels I subscribe to. All of my old accounts still existed, I just could not access them.

Premium Channels Prior Seasons

What is great about premium cable apps is that you seem to get full access to complete episodes for all of the back seasons of the show. You can even find older series like all six seasons of the Sopranos on HBO as well as all eight seasons of Weeds on Showtime.

iOS App links for 5 leading premium cable channels:

Cable provider apps

Providing a more complete experience, cable providers’ apps share a consolidated program guide that includes a 24/7 listing of all of the network’s programs. Individual networks’ apps only provide you with the time that their prime shows air. Many cable providers now allow you to watch live TV and access an expanding list of on-demand content from each of the network channels included in your subscription. Even content from providers whose apps you could not log on to individually.

The number of episodes and seasons available will vary from network to network. The main advantage of using a network’s app over the cable provider’s app depends on whether or not the network has also added additional content and special features that the cable provider would not necessarily have access to. For the most part, the cable provider’s apps do not include access to webisodes, behind the scenes clips, and other special features included with some networks’ apps.

The most useful feature of the cable providers’ apps is the built in Wi-Fi remote control of your cable box. Access to your DVR list allows you to remotely and add programs to your recording schedule when you are not at home. Unfortunately for both AT&T as well as Time Warner, the two cable providers that I have subscribed to in recent months, I have not been able to access and play back recorded shows stored on my DVR.

Top Cable Providers

iOS App links for 8 leading cable providers:

Sure, there are definitely more direct ways of watching your favorite television program on an iOS device. Locating and activating just 20 different network apps can take some time.  But if you are already paying for cable television, you should look to see if you already have access to the shows you want to watch before buying multiple seasons on either iTunes or Amazon or filling up your DVD queue on Netflix.

If and when Apple decides to update the Apple TV to include a wider selection of the most popular channels, one could look towards what the App Store already has to offer as a sign of things to come.  If that is the case, be prepared to spend some time logging on to each and every channel, and being disappointed because your cable provider does not yet have a deal with your favorite network about 40 percent of the time.

Related research and analysis from Gigaom Research:
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