How the Death of Aereo Impacts Classic Film + TV Fans

Philco AereoAt 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Saturday, June 28, Aereo suspended service to subscribers in the eleven U.S. television markets it served – including as many as 135,000 in New York City.

I was one of them.

For me, the Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday that the company violated U.S. copyright law by retransmitting broadcasters’ signals without permission – or payment –wasn’t just another bloodless battle of media behemoths. It was a personal defeat that will alter the way I watch television immediately, and in the future.

And, if you’re a fan of classic film and TV you may be a loser, too.  

Aereo was founded two years ago by Chaitanya Kanojia and backed by Barry Diller’s IAC, a company that owns more than 150 Internet brands, including Match.com. The service launched in New York in 2012, remotely “renting” subscribers individual TV antennas, miniscule versions of the metallic monstrosities that cluttered the skylines of pre-Cable America. In return for $8 per-month, Aereo streamed local TV channels to a user’s computer, smartphone, or tablet, with the option to watch on big screen TVs via a channel on the Roku Streaming Player, and to record using a cloud-based DVR (with added storage for an additional fee).

TV Guide Christmas Cover 1977aTherein lied Aereo’s defense against the copyright infringement argument: they were selling antennas, not channels. Broadcasters didn’t buy this argument, of course, but Justices Thomas, Alito, and Scalia did in their dissenting opinion (which puts me in the unaccustomed position of agreeing with three Conservatives). Issues of legality aside, Aereo was a perfect solution for cable cord-cutters in major cities like New York, where giant sightline obstructions known as “skyscrapers” prevent olde-fashioned antennae from accessing over-the-air TV signals as God (and Philo T. Farnsworth) intended.

But it was the “$8 per-month” part of the equation that caught the attention of broadcasters who, thanks to retransmission consent regulation, can now charge cable providers for signals that are otherwise available over-the-air for free. In some cases, these negotiations have even resulted in local stations being temporarily yanked from cable packages, like the monthlong CBS blackout affecting more than 3 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Dallas during the summer of 2013. Coincidentally(?) Aereo operated in three of those affected cities, with plans to expand to 22 markets until the Roberts Court altered their strategy.

At this point in our story you may be thinking, “Will, you watch Turner Classic Movies every day. How are you a cord-cutter?” Short answer: I’m not.

DUSU07 start-nw.inddIn fact, I may be one of the few Aereo customers who is also a cable subscriber. But here’s the thing about cable providers like the soon-to-be-merged Time Warner and Comcast and an ever-consolidating number of others: they’re required to carry full-power, broadcast TV stations in the markets in which they operate if the owner wants them to, but they’re not required to carry the digital sub-channels that many of those stations now broadcast (unless carriage of sub-channels is a condition of retransmission negotiation).

What’s a digital sub-channel? If you watch the classic TV network Me-TV, you already know.

When American television switched from analog to digital broadcast in 2009, the available bandwidth for each channel allowed the station owner to transmit multiple programming streams. What used to be one channel could now be two, three, or a dozen, depending upon image quality (HD vs. standard definition), aspect ratio (16:9 widescreen vs. 4:3), and video compression. But what to air on these hundreds of new channels in the largest land boom in broadcast TV since its invention?

Enter the Digi-Net: turnkey networks available to air in your city at little or no cost to a local station owner (depending upon how commercial advertising revenue is divvied up). Retro TV was born in 2005, followed by This TV in 2008, the national roll-out of Me-TV (which began life as a Chicago independent station) in 2010, Antenna TV and Bounce TV in 2011, COZI-TV in 2012, Movies! TV Network in 2013, and getTV in 2014. All (except Bounce) are primarily programmed with classic TV series or movies that are controlled by the network’s parent, or licensed from third parties at relatively low cost. And more are on the way.

KDAF_AntennaTVThe Digi-Nets are available over the air, as “.2” or “.3” (pronounced “dot two” or “dot three”) sub-channels of local stations that have existed for generations. In New York City, for example: COZI TV is broadcast on 4.2 (a sub-channel of the local NBC affiliate); MOVIES! TV Network is 5.2, multicasting from the Fox affiliate WNYW (not surprising, considering  MOVIES! is half-owned by Fox and programmed with Fox films); Bounce TV (targeted to African-Americans and privately held) is offered by WWOR (which is also owned by Fox) on channel 9.3; Antenna TV is 11.2 and This TV is 11.3, both sub-channels of WPIX (owned by Tribune Broadcasting); and Sony’s getTV classic film network multicasts on channels 41.2 and 68.2, both controlled by Spanish language broadcaster Univision, though getTV broadcasts in English (proving that the Digi-Net and its parent channel can be unrelated). Note: Me-TV on Time Warner Cable in New York is a direct feed from the network, not a retransmission of a local sub-channel, as it is in most other markets.

As of the first of this year, only two of these six sub-channels were available to me on Time Warner Cable in New York City. After unsuccessfully trying to access the others with a $25 pair of Radio Shack rabbit ears, I turned to Aereo. I signed up for a monthly $8 subscription and began watching on my Roku with, in most cases, a reliably clear image on my 52″ TV. I also watched on my laptop, but not while traveling, since the service blocked access to local signals when a user was out of the market. It was seemingly a win-win: I got more choice, the DigiNets got more viewers, and we both avoided a cable gatekeeper. But it was not to be.

Time Warner has since added getTV to their lineup, but the death of Aereo means I lose This TV, Bounce TV, and MOVIES! – and the programming they control. If, like me, you watch TCM on a regular basis, you have already seen the impact of the rise of the digital sub-channels, with certain films no longer being available to license, or airing less frequently. This will likely only get worse, as more Digi-Nets launch and seek to stand out in an increasingly competitive space with exclusive content.

So what are my alternatives? Other than moving somewhere without tall buildings, or becoming a Supreme Court justice, not many. FilmOn is an internet TV provider that repackages some broadcast TV stations using a similar remote antenna/cloud DVR strategy. But, after successfully stillborning Aereo, emboldened broadcasters are likely to be out for digital blood, and FilmOn may be next on the hit list.

While I understand the legal theory behind this case, and even its resolution, it all seems  regressive to me. In an era when on-demand streaming media is redefining the concept of TV, can broadcasters afford to make moves that take eyeballs off their product? Because that’s just what’s happening with me, and potentially you in the future, even if you’ve never even heard of Aereo. How far they could have gone to extend the reach of these specialty channels, and their classic content? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

So goodbye, Aereo. And so long MOVIES! TV Network, This TV, Bounce TV, and any other new broadcast digital sub-channels Time Warner Cable doesn’t think I should see. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be streaming classic movies and TV shows via Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime – whenever, wherever, and however I want.

For my interview with the getTV programmer, click here. For my interview with the Retro TV programmer, click here.

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About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
This entry was posted in Classic Film, Classic TV, getTV, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to How the Death of Aereo Impacts Classic Film + TV Fans

  1. hilisie says:

    Sorry for your loss.

  2. alanhait says:

    Very proud to say – I read, and did not ignore this!

  3. Kelly says:

    Personaly Will I don’t think Justice Robert is Classic movie fan he seem that stick in the mud just sayin

  4. Marc says:

    There are other companies that retransmit broadcast stations with no monthly fee. They only charge for the option to record and other extras, thus I assume they are not affected by the ruling

  5. Marc says:

    FilmOn.com has This, Movies!, AntennaTV, Cozi and Bounce, as well as many other local independent stations all across the US (look in the Local TV section). They also have a section called Classic TV where you may find Bonanza, Charle Chaplin movies, The Beverly Hillbillies and others, as well as many other sections/topics. The organization is very poor, and they insert their own ads, but there is no charge for the standard-definition video stream. Another service is NimbleTV.com with AntennaTV, This and a number of networks such as Al Jazeera, CSPAN, CCTV, NASA TV, RT in their free package.

  6. Pingback: Adam West vs. “Alice” in 1976 | cinematically insane

  7. Ruth says:

    All is not lost! Rabbit TV has a great selection of classic shows, including Lassie, The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, Mork & Mindy, I Dream of Jeanie, The Love Boat, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Miami Vice, Roseanne, Family Ties, and more!

  8. jameswharris says:

    I ditched cable years ago, and although I watch some over-the-air TV, I don’t much care for all these new channels with all their damn commercials. I use Netflix, Hulu Plus, Warner Instant Archive and Amazon Prime to get my old movies, but still the selection is limited. I’d gladly pay $7.99 a month to TCM if it was available on the Roku. And I’m willing to rent movies through the Roku if they are priced right – although it irks the hell out of me that they charge extra for HD when everything is HD now. To me, the Roku is the solution. I even get more PBS shows now through my PBS Roku channel.

    The whole idea of broadcasting, either via the airways or by cable or satellite, is archaic. The only real value of broadcasting is for live shows like sports or news. Why wait for a certain day of the month, and time of the day, to watch a particular old movie or TV show? I’ve gotten too used to instant gratification of streaming TV.

    I did subscribe to ClassicFlix for a while, but got tired of the 4 day mail wait. It’s a shame it’s not streaming.

    I’ve over cable and OTA too.

    • willmckinley says:

      James, you sound like a Millennial!

      But I agree 100%. Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV are really changing the way people consume classic content. The only advantage broadcast and cable channels have is the curation of a programming department. There are thousands of old movies and TV shows available streaming nowadays, and the sheer volume of the available material can be overwhelming. If you’re not familiar with the movies and TV shows, how do you choose what to watch? That’s why I still find myself deferring to programmed channels first.

      Like you, I’d gladly pay for a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) version of TCM. And I believe that option is coming, but not for a while. The cable business as it currently exists needs to be blown up before individual cable channels start skipping the middleman and delivering directly to the viewer. If and when TCM does this, it will likely cost more than $8/month.

      • jameswharris says:

        No, I’m a Baby Boomer. I’m 62. I guess curation would be good for people who are new to old movies, but I’ve been watching them all my life, plus I read books about movie history, and I read blogs like this one. The Warner Instant Archive has a good interface for just browsing and finding old movies. And I get ideas from Wikipedia and IMDB. Plus I search out Best Of lists.

        Well, to blow up the cable business, more people need to drop cable. It’s insane to buy hundreds of channels you don’t watch. However, I think there is a large number of cord-cutters, but not enough to really change the paradigm. I would hope that TCM would just see a Roku channel as just another revenue stream.

  9. Pingback: DRACULA, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN + the 5W’s of Classic Film | cinematically insane

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