Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Aereo: Another "cable killer"?

Companies have been trying for years to offer cable television-like services over the Internet, without having to either get permission from broadcasters or pay them to retransmit their shows. FilmOn and Ivi are two companies that tried last year, but are both currently "off the air" as the result of court injunctions. Aereo, a New York-based company, is the latest to try. The company launched its service today in New York City. According to the company, Aereo is designed specifically to get around the legal limitations that shut both FilmOn and Ivi down.

Aereo will stream the signals from 20 New York City-area broadcast stations to its subscribers for $12/month, and will include a network-based DVR service that was upheld as legal by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in a case against Cablevision. All the major broadcast networks, including ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS, will be included, but cable-only networks such as USA, TNT and CNN won't be. That's one big difference between Aereo's service and those of FilmOn and Ivi, both of which offered a selection of basic cable networks. In addition, Aereo will initially only be available in New York City, and Aereo will only carry signals from local television stations--another difference from its predecessors, which made signals from stations in Los Angeles and New York available to subscribers around the U.S.

Aereo is doing one more thing that it hopes will make its service ligitation-proof: For every subscriber, Aereo will install a tiny, thumb-sized antenna in an undisclosed location in New York City. (Correction, February 15, 2012: Aereo is going to allocate each subscriber their own antenna from a pool of antennas while they're using the service, not install a dedicated antenna for every subscriber.) The idea is that each subscriber will receive the signal from their own antenna, not from a "community" antenna, and therefore, Aereo isn't a cable system and isn't bound by cable retransmission rules. It's an interesting way to try to get around the regulations, but whether the courts will agree is an open question.

Aereo has one more card to play: One of its investors is IAC, and company Chairman Barry Diller will join Aereo's Board of Directors. Diller is a former VP of development at ABC Television, former Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures and former Chairman and CEO of Fox, where he founded the Fox Television Network. At one time he owned USA Network. Diller is one of the best-connected executives in the media industry, and he has the experience in running and working with television networks and movie studios that neither FilmOn nor Ivi had. However, it's unclear if that's going to be of any help if the New York television stations go to court against Aereo.

Update, March 1, 2012: The Hollywood Reporter reports that not one, but two, lawsuits were filed against Aereo today to stop it from launching on March 14th. The first lawsuit, asking for a permanent injunction and statutory damages, was filed by Fox, Telemundo and PBS and their New York affiliates. The second lawsuit, asking for pretty much the same thing, was filed by CBS, NBC and ABC and their local affiliates. The Hollywood Reporter says that the two lawsuits are likely to be consolidated.

If you live in New York, have poor television reception and don't care about cable networks (or can get what you want from Netflix), it may be worth considering Aereo as an alternative to cable. If you live outside New York, don't hold your breath--Aereo's unlikely to spread to other cities until the courts determine whether or not its service is legal.
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