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Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 12:35 pm PT (03:35 pm ET)

ABC updates iOS app with live streams of all programming in select markets

Tuesday saw the launch of a new version of broadcaster ABC's iOS app, one that for the first time will allow users in select markets to watch live television from a U.S. broadcaster.

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Version 3.0.0 saw ABC's app's name change from ABC Player to Watch ABC. App users in New York City and Philadelphia will now have the ability to see a live stream of ABC's programming, and plans are underway to roll out the live service to at least six more markets where ABC owns local stations.

The live stream feature will arrive in an additional 13 Hearst-owned stations over the rest of the year. ABC is working to bring the feature to users in other markets, but that will depend on the willingness of more than 200 local broadcasters to join in on the live streaming.

The service is currently unrestricted, but ABC's release notes for the app state that the app will begin verifying whether users are customers of an eligible local cable system beginning July 1.

The live streaming move is a first among the major U.S. broadcast networks, and it signals a shift in their thinking. While cable giant ESPN — which, like ABC, is also owned by Disney — has gradually grown the capabilities of its apps to the point where it now includes the ability to watch live content, the broadcasters have been reluctant to move beyond delayed release of content to their apps.

Those mainstays of the television world, though, have seen their business model come under threat as users increasingly opt to consume television on mobile devices. Presented with the option to watch shows in bulk on Netflix and on time-delay with DVR technology and services like Apple's iTunes, consumers are upsetting the model that has until recently defined television.

The live streaming also functions as a salvo against services like Hulu. The near future will see ABC holding back its most recent TV episodes from the free versions of Hulu and ABC.com, according to The New York Times.

Among the more troubling developments has been the rise of Aereo, a service that uses antennas to capture broadcast content and stream it to subscribers, who watch it on their iPads and other mobile devices. The major broadcast networks say Aereo's service amounts to illegal rebroadcasting, a violation of their content rights. So far, though, the courts have disagreed.

By putting its own live content out in an app that it controls, ABC is taking a risk, but also partly wresting control from Aereo and similar services. Announcing the move, Disney-ABC Television Group president said it was the result of a realization that ABC wasn't moving fast enough to give consumers what they want.

"We keep a very close eye on consumer demand," said Anne Sweeney, the Television Group president. "We watch how people are behaving with their devices, and we really felt that we needed to move faster."

The Watch ABC app is available as a free download in the iTunes App Store. The 38.8MB download requires an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad running iOS 5.0 or later.