Apple has begun talks in preparation for a set-top box device that could be used to watch live TV as well as view other content, reports Jessica E. Vascellaro and Shalini Ramachandran at The Wall Street Journal.

This would apparently be a new direction that would let Apple get a stronger presence in the living room. It would involve them getting deals with cable providers, which the report says has not happened.

The report implies that such a device could run ‘hundreds of dollars’, which would mirror the costs of such boxes from Motorola and others, which are subsidized by the cable company and rented to customers on a monthly basis.

It would also mark a shift from plans it has ‘contemplated’ in the past, like licensing content directly for a television-ready device. Apple would be partnering with cable operators to offer its own set-top box, apparently mixing content from apps-as-channels with the standard cable content being delivered through the companies’ own boxes now. What motivation the companies have to do that isn’t mentioned, and none jumps immediately to mind.

Apple’s Tim Cook was said to have met with Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable during the Sun Valley conference, and sources informed the WSJ that Time Warner is one of the potential partners.

The details offered about the plans indicate that it is still amorphous, and indicate Apple has worked on prototype TV sets in the past:

Two people briefed on the matter said the technology involved could ultimately be embedded in a television. Apple has worked on prototypes for televisions in the past, according to people briefed on the projects.

If Apple is planning on doing a set-top box device, it would apparently be the culmination of a long-running idea:

Apple contemplated building a cable set-top box more than two years ago before it launched the latest version of its Apple TV, according to a person familiar with the matter. At the time, Apple’s then CEO Steve Jobs was dismissive of the idea, believing working with cable operators was problematic because they didn’t have national reach—each served only defined geographic territories. Another issue: entertainment companies own most of the content, not the operators, according to two people familiar with the meetings.

Apple, of course, already has one box that you connect to a television: the Apple TV. It offers content from a variety of online providers, including Netflix, Hulu and Apple’s own iTunes catalog. Apple has sold some 4M units of the Apple TV this fiscal year, with 1.3M going in the last quarter alone, but the company still says it’s ‘pulling the string’ to see where it leads and calls it a ‘hobby’.

The WSJ says that those sales, while tidy, have been deemed too weak in the past by cable operators to consider making a deal.