Aereo: Congress’ Rescuer?

by on August 15, 2013 · 1 comment

Aereo LogoThere are few things more likely to get constituents to call their representative than TV programming blackouts, and the increase in broadcasting disruptions arising from licensing disputes in recent years means Congress may be forced to once again fix television and copyright laws. As Jerry Brito explains at Reason, the current standoff between CBS and Time Warner Cable is the result of bad regulations, which contribute to more frequent broadcaster blackouts. While each type of TV distributor (cable, satellite, broadcasters, telcos) is both disadvantaged and advantaged through regulation, broadcasters are particularly favored. As the US Copyright Office has said, the rule at issue in CBS-TWC is “part of a thicket of communications law requirements aimed at protecting and supporting the broadcast industry.”

But as we approach a damaging tipping point of rising programming costs and blackouts, Congress’ potential rescuer–Aereo–appears on the horizon, possibly buying more time before a major regulatory rewrite. Aereo, for the uninitiated, is a small online company that sets up tiny antennas in certain cities to capture broadcast television station signals–like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the CW, and Univision–and streams those signals online to paying customers, who can watch live or record the local signals captured by their own “rented” Aereo antenna. Broadcasters hate this because the service deprives them of lucrative retransmission fees and unsuccessfully sued to get Aereo to cease operations.

Let’s back up. Broadcast television is–as my colleague Tom Hazlett says–the “killer app of 1952.” It’s an old technology featuring a few dozen channels that hasn’t fared well with the rise of subscription television offering hundreds of channels–Comcast, Dish, U-Verse, and others. Only about 10% to 15% of households rely on rabbit ears antennas to receive free broadcast TV, while the rest have a subscription.

As a condition of receiving free spectrum from the government decades ago, broadcasters must make their over the air programming free to the public. Because it’s a free public broadcast, three different nascent technologies have captured those signals and transmitted it to their customers for a fee. Cable companies did this in the 1960s, satellite companies did this in the 1990s, and antenna rental services like Aereo are doing this today. The first two times, Congress stepped in at broadcasters’ behest and added regulations that mandate payment to local broadcasters for retransmission rights.

I’m doubtful Congress will step in a third time and make online distributors like Aereo pay for retransmission. While the laws tilt in broadcasters’ favor, Aereo gives cable and satellite companies additional leverage since–if they have a protracted fight with a broadcaster–they can direct their customers to Aereo. TWC is, in fact, doing this in its current dispute with CBS. Since customers have an online option, no one needs to miss NFL preseason football or the latest How I Met Your Mother. Aereo is not an ideal solution, but it gives a cable or satellite provider another bargaining weapon.

For several reasons, I think Congress may allow Aereo to proceed. First, with the variety of print, online, and television options consumers face today, broadcast programming is no longer a sacred cow. Congress, the FCC, and the tech and telecom industries are anxious to get more broadcasters off the air to make room for spectrum-hungry mobile technologies. That is the precise purpose of the pending incentive auctions. Broadcasters are a powerful group with compelling arguments for the status quo–they provide high-demand local news, sports, and weather, for instance–but many people are beginning to realistically imagine life without them.

Second, the primary political justification for protecting local broadcasters–local ownership and diversity–has “virtually vanished” because of industry consolidation in the 1990s and 2000s, as Harold Feld from Public Knowledge notes. It was easier in the past to defend these regulatory carve-outs for broadcasters when locally-owned operations were the beneficiaries, but today many broadcasters are owned by large media companies.

Finally, in the dynamic video marketplace, Congress may be hesitant to impose more regulations on new video technologies. Protecting a 1950s technology by enforcing 1990s laws on today’s Internet services makes little sense. Already, television laws passed in the 1990s look terribly dated and give Congress and the FCC headaches. Rewriting television and copyright laws is a huge task involving many powerful industries seeking protection from disruptive law changes. With the House and Senate controlled by different parties, this makes a grand compromise even less likely.

So Aereo and other antenna rental services represent some relief for regulators since it gives cable and satellite providers a little more leverage. The service is only in a few cities but is quickly expanding. If consumers adopt the service during future disputes, a semblance of equilibrium may return when subscription services bargain with broadcasters. For that reason, Congress may want to sit back and see how it plays out.

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