Peter Kafka

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MSNBC Readies a Cautious Move Onto the iPad

MSNBC is preparing its own entry into the iPad app derby. But the cable network is moving cautiously into the race: Its upcoming free app will feature programming from just one of its shows.

Mark Marvel, who runs video sales for, won’t identify which show the app will feature/promote or when it will be ready. But Marvel says it will offer up complete episodes, as well as features that allow users to “engage with the host of that show,” among other options. So go ahead and make your own guess about which show that might be. (My hunch: Rachel Maddow would be more popular than Dylan Ratigan.)

“Company X introduces iPad app” wouldn’t really qualify as news at this point except that the TV business is the one industry that hasn’t rushed onto Apple’s (AAPL) new platform.

The Flash/HTML5 imbroglio is (a relatively small) part of the reason. But the real issue here is that programmers haven’t figured out what the iPad means for them: Is it a place to put up free ad-supported video, as they’ve tried to do on the Web? Or can they get away with charging money for their stuff (see: ABC’s free iPad app and Hulu’s nonexistent one)?

In MSNBC’s case, moving to the iPad is even trickier, since cable providers pay the GE (GE) unit a fee to carry its programming. Some programmers, like Viacom (VIA) and MSNBC itself have been able to put that same stuff up for free on their own sites and sell ads against it. But it is a practice that provokes grumbling from the likes of Comcast (CMCSA), which is why you don’t see that much of it.

Marvel, who discussed the company’s plan on a Web video panel hosted by Beet.TV last night, says MSNBC may hear more grumbling when it launches the app. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear some pushback from them,” he said. “[But] the fact is that this is going to be testing a new market.”

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