Broadcast Television Is The Internet’s Waterloo


Now that the Aereo ruling has come down from the Supreme Court it’s safe to say that the television is where internet innovation goes to die. For those of you who haven’t been following the case, Aereo (a company that rented customers a tiny antenna for $8 per month and then transmitted the TV signal to them over the internet) was sued by TV broadcast companies for violating laws related to re-transmitting television signals. While Aereo took steps to respect the broadcasters’ rights (such as one antenna per stream and locational restrictions when streaming content) the Supreme Court ruled that Aereo was in fact violating the law, a ruling that means Aereo can no longer legally operate.

It’s fitting that around the same time as the Aereo ruling Google announced their next run at innovating on the TV via a product called Android TV. This after Google tried unsuccessfully to innovate on the TV with Google TV. Whereas Google TV tried to integrate tightly with existing cable boxes Android TV focuses on Android apps and games as the core of the system. In short, it eschews the TV part, which is pretty ironic, but typical of where this category of software is headed.

You see, the trend is that while a particular software ecosystem may be installed on your TV it likely does not interact in anyway with broadcast television. Instead (just like when you’re using a mobile device) it connects you with apps that will stream (mostly) pre-recorded and (sometimes) live video. Typically any live TV that’s available comes courtesy of apps (such as TWC TV and Watch ESPN) that are available when the user has purchased a particular cable package. So while live TV (both broadcast and cable varieties) are available via the internet you still need to subscribe to a cable provider in order to get it. Aereo tried to solve that problem for broadcast TV.

I mention Google above but they’re not the only company to make a run at integrating television and the Internet. Back in the 1990s Microsoft had something called WebTV. A friend of mine was sent an early model to try out and provide feedback. The biggest problem at the time was the dearth of broadband internet in the home. Hence, WebTV relied on dial-up to (very slowly) pull down information from the internet. More recently a privately held company called Boxee attempted to market a box that used a local antenna to record broadcast programs and store them remotely. Because of the local antenna Boxee didn’t run into the same legal issues as Aereo. Rather, a buggy product and limited user adoption eventually lead to a fire sale of Boxee to Samsung.

Also worth mentioning is Microsoft’s integration of a program guide with Windows Media Center that, combined with a TV antenna card, can schedule recordings and store them for playback on a local hard drive. Several years ago I took advantage of this feature by configuring a Windows 7 PC (complete with Blu-ray drive) to use as a replacement for my cable box. It worked well so I am still using the setup to this day. Unfortunately I count myself among very few people doing this. First off, because it’s still a PC it’s kind of a pain to use it with the TV. And if you subscribe to a cable package only the broadcast channels can be viewed in HD. Finally, more recently the program guide feature has because unreliable and some channels have disappeared.

So what are we left with? How do we, as consumers, enjoy broadcast TV programs when we want to and how we want to without paying up to the big daddy cable and satellite companies every month of our lives? I realize that most people won’t go to the lengths that I have gone to in order to develop a technical solution. [As a side note I’ll say that what drove me to create a home theater PC (HTPC) was the fact I had to return a broken cable box and lost some great recordings that I wanted to see again.] The technology and internet bandwidth exist for consumers to pay a provider to host our antenna (as Aereo was doing) and allow us freedom over our TV experience. But the law (as we now know) prevents that from happening.

The only way I can see to remedy the situation is to change the law. The law protecting broadcaster’s is antiquated and does not contemplate the type of innovation that is powered by the internet. The whole reason that TV needed to be broadcast over the air in the first place is due to the fact that other delivery methods were not technically possible. Now those alternative methods are possible. To quote the film the Godfather, surely the broadcasters could “present a bill for such services; after all… we are not Communists.” But I think that the broadcasters would charge a reasonable fee over their dead bodies. Hence, the only way to allow broadcast TV to be innovated in the way it deserves to (for the benefit of consumers and entrepreneurs alike) is to lobby Congress to change things. If that doesn’t happen I wouldn’t be surprised if people just start voting with their feet such that the networks will have wished that they allowed Aereo to work their magic.

 

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