ESPN App Goes Where Viacom Hasn’t . . . Yet

While Viacom and Time Warner Cable sued and countersued each other over launching iPad applications, ESPN showed why its fellow content owners might be willing to go to the mat over carriage rights for new devices like the iPad: they’ve got their own mobile apps in the pipeline that they want to take precedence over anything the cable providers want to offer.

The sports programming giant rolled out its new WatchESPN app on Thursday for Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iTouch, a free service that will allow authenticated cable subscribers to stream the company’s networks live, in their entirety, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3.com.

Initially, WatchESPN is available to Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks and Verizon FiOS TV subscribers, who must log in and prove they pay for cable to watch these networks. That tactic is similar to what ESPN imitated last year, when the company became the first major cable network to allow viewers to stream its networks on the Web.

While several major cable networks have streamed their full networks on mobile devices as part of subscription services like MobiTV for years, this new free ESPN app could have major implications for the cable industry, which has had a rocky start when it comes to addressing mobile in-home viewing.

ESPN president George Bodenheimer’s public statement about the new service was particularly ironic in light of what was unfolding nearly simultaneously yesterday in a Manhattan courthouse between Viacom and Time Warner: “We’ve reached this watershed moment for the industry through tremendous collaboration with forward-thinking partners,” Bodenheimer said.