Local TV stations still fighting streaming services

Entertainment & Technology Summit: Spring 2012

Just days before Aereo launched an innovative service so consumers could stream New York TV station signals over all manner of devices, the startup, not surprisingly, was sued by the broadcast networks.

If Aereo didn’t factor legal costs into its budget, it was definitely naive. Other services have launched with the intention of streaming broadcast signals, including ivi and FilmOn, but they ran aground in court.

As sure as broadcasters are in their legal footing — particularly in that the startups were violating their right of public performance — the fact that Aereo is even attempting to make a splash speaks to the continued pressure on stations to get their signals on to mobile devices. At his state of the industry at the NAB Show earlier this month, NAB topper Gordon Smith even cited mobile as a top priority for TV broadcasters.

So what is taking so long?

Stations could create their own iPad app and simply run their signal 24/7, but that would jeopardize lucrative retransmission consent fees from cable and satellite operators. Hence their determination to stop what could be an end run around their business model.

But even if they pursued such a strategy, they would face the rather complex business of securing the digital rights to programming they do not own. For example, a Fox affiliate would be in the clear if it chose to stream its local news, but it’d be in dangerous territory if it streamed “Glee.”

That doesn’t mean broadcasters are ignoring the demand for their content on mobile; they’re just taking another route.

The solution is much more of a technical feat: Delivery of dedicated mobile TV signals to portable devices specially equipped with receivers. That includes news, sports, traffic, weather and emergency alerts. Some 120 stations are transmitting mobile digital TV signals, according to the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a broadcasters group pushing for electronics manufacturers to incorporate the receivers.

But that is an expensive, more cumbersome way to get at the demand for streams of free TV, anywhere, anytime. Aereo, which is offering streams of New York stations, is set up with thumbnail-sized antennas to capture broadcast signals for each of its $12-per-month subscribers. It believes that this is the way they are legal. Company just keeps the antenna the customer otherwise would install at home. But the problem the networks have is what happens afterward — in the transmission of the signal digitally, which they say is in violation of copyright law.

Aereo said in a recent court filing the company “simply provides to its members the convenience of locating at a remote facility the type of equipment they otherwise could use at home.”

Yet just as Aereo got off the ground came the news of another service, on the other coast, called Skitter, which offers streams of Portland channels to Roku boxes, with an eye to offering them via mobile apps. Skitter is believed to be on more solid footing because it has obtained retrans licenses from broadcasters to stream their signals.

If that doesn’t fly, what is all but certain is that there will be another whimsically named streaming services, with all the local stations, coming down the pike again.