Fresh off the major networks' Supreme Court victory over Aereo, the National Assn. of Broadcasters helpfully pointed Aereo's erstwhile customers to a special offer from Antennas Direct: a free rooftop TV antenna! That's a $130 value, yours (if you're one of the first 1,000 to submit an Aereo bill) for just $10 in shipping charges!
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, who circulated the offer Thursday to reporters, no doubt had tongue planted firmly in cheek. But as he certainly has figured out, very, very few people became Aereo customers because rooftop antennas were too expensive. If any. A more likely motivation is how difficult NAB's members have made it to watch live TV online.
For broadcasters, the only noteworthy feature of Aereo was that it provided their programs to subscribers without obtaining licenses or paying fees for the privilege. The Supreme Court shared that technology-lite view of the case, holding that Aereo "looks like cable TV" (as dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia scornfully put it) and therefore should be treated as such by the law. If it's cheap broadcast TV you're after, putting up an antenna is a fine solution. Provided that you can put an antenna on your roof. And you're not in an urban canyon or some other place with lousy reception.
But to its customers, Aereo wasn't just a low-cost way to watch local stations. It was a way to watch live TV through the Internet anywhere in the local stations' local broadcasting area. It made TV mobile and viewable on a wide range of devices. Yes, for some it was a solution to bad reception, particularly for apartment-dwellers. But those folks had access to cable TV and its less-expensive broadcast-only tier, and they wanted Aereo instead. What does that tell you?
OK, in part it tells you that cable companies charge way too much for their "limited basic" offerings. Time Warner Cable charges about $24 a month in Los Angeles, Comcast about $30 in San Francisco — that's three to four times Aereo's $8 monthly charge, and it doesn't include such add-ons as the fees for the set-top boxes customers may need to actually tune in the programming.
But it also says that people want to watch TV on their tablets, laptops and smartphones, and the broadcasters' offerings to date just don't cut it. For example, Hulu doesn't permit live TV viewing, and it doesn't offer the local broadcasters' local programs (such as the nightly news). Same for the networks' websites.
For their part, broadcasters seem hell-bent on making life even more inconvenient for viewers in the name of protecting the retransmission fees they extract from cable and satellite operators. For example, in addition to delaying when an episode will appear online, some have been extending the delay even further for those who aren't cable subscribers. Because, you know, people who aren't cable subscribers are happy to wait longer to watch a show on a legitimate, advertiser-supported platform, instead of streaming it immediately from an illegal one without ads.
This sort of issue has cropped up in every industry struggling to come to grips with the transition from analog to digital. Industry executives live in fear that new digital options will cannibalize their existing revenue streams. Eventually, though, they recognize that new digital options can cater to an audience that isn't interested in the old-school ones.
I don't know how many subscribers Aereo had; it didn't release those figures. Last year the Wall Street Journal estimated the number in New York City alone was roughly 90,000 to 135,000, although its methods seem a little dodgy. But the thing is, Aereo appealed to the digital-era population, which isn't getting smaller; the population raised watching TV on a living-room TV set is.
Now, with Aereo's service suspended and its prospects cloudy (to use a polite term), broadcasters have an opening. Why not sell Hulu the rights to stream live TV through HuluPlus, which now charges $8 a month for a broad selection of shows post-broadcast? Or work with another site, such as erstwhile thorn-in-the-side FilmOn, to offer just the local stations in each market?
Without HBO, ESPN, FX and the rest of the cable lineup, such an offering couldn't match cable or satellite TV. It would appeal only to people who found the idea behind Aereo compelling: those who're willing to pay for the ability to watch TV on a tablet at the park or a smartphone on the bus.
Because if the broadcasters don't go there, some company (or companies) will find a way to sell people an easy-to-use package of equipment for their home that will do the same thing that Aereo did remotely. And it (or they) won't have to pay the broadcasters a dime.