Aereo’s courtroom win–what it means


It’s a company in the Barry Diller stable.   Aereo has assembled a ton of tiny little over-the-air television antennas deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, each tagged with the name of the individual customer Aereo rents it to.  The antennas capture the signals of the traditional broadcasters that use public airwaves.  Aereo repackages these signals, adds pause, rewind and record features–and then streams them to each renter’s computer, tablet, smartphone, Apple TV or Roku box.

(For what it’s worth, in addition to all the over-the-air channels, Aereo tosses in Bloomberg TV.)

The service is currently available in New York City, Long Island, plus seven NY counties in/around the Hudson Valley. Thirteen counties in New Jersey qualify as well, as do Fairfield County in Connecticut and Pike County in Pennsylvania.

how much does it cost?

You can “try” Aereo for an hour a day, with (so far) no limitations, for free.  No DVR, though.

You can buy a Day Pass for $1.  That gets you 24 continuous hours of viewing and three hours of recording (lasts ten days).

You can subscribe for $8 a month and get unlimited viewing + 20 hours of DVR space.  $12 a month gets you 40 hours of DVRing.  You can also plunk down $80 for a year’s worth of watching–plus three free months.

the lawsuit

All the big TV networks have sued Aereo, maintaining that the firm is making an unauthorized public transmission of their content (translation: Aereo isn’t paying retransmission fees the way cable/satellite companies do).  Aereo says its service is no different from a guy putting an old-fashioned TV antenna on his roof–except that in this case it’s super-tiny and lives in the lower intestinal tract of Kings County.

On Monday, an appeals court reaffirmed a lower court ruling that Aereo is right and that the networks are unlikely to win in a trial.  So the court isn’t going to shut the service down, like the networks wanted.

The networks say they’re going to bring the case to trial anyway.  Even if they do, and eventually prevail, that will be years–and lots of potential damage–down the road.

my take

1.  After its court wins, Aereo is going to expand its service to 22 new cities (the list is on the Aereo blog).  To me, this means that Aereo is soon going to be more than a minor annoyance.  (Note, however, that there are no plans to set foot in California–perhaps because a court there has already shut down an Aereo-like service, according to the New York Times.)

Aereo has already spawned imitators, so the phenomenon could spread much faster than anyone now suspects.

There’s also nothing to prevent unaffiliated content providers from selling their offerings to Aereo, either (but don’t hold your breath for network-controlled programmers like ESPN).  So Aereo-like services could turn out to be bigger than anyone now thinks.

2.  All the cord-cutters in my family have line-of-sight access to digital broadcast sources–something that’s not common in New York.  So $8 a month is a lot more expensive for us than buying the $35 digital antennas we hook up to our TVs.  But we’re unusually lucky.

Of course, an hour a day of live TV may be enough for many folks, supplemented by the occasional $1 to view, say, important sports events.

And Aereo is an awful lot cheaper than getting the lowest-level cable service.

So Aereo may have a surprisingly large impact on the cord-cutting decision.

3.  If I were a cable company paying retransmission fees to the networks, I’d certainly want to negotiate them down.  After all, I could always try to cut a deal with Aereo if I didn’t get a favorable response.

4.  Original content, à la Netflix, on Aereo?  …shouldn’t be too hard for Diller, who ran Paramount and built Fox Broadcasting.

investment significance

If I didn’t have my trusty digital antenna, I’d be an Aereo customer today.

If I could invest in Aereo today on reasonable terms, I’m pretty sure I’d do it.

Buy into an Aereo IPO?  –harder to say, since if the service gets rolling, the offering price might be crazy-high–even Zynga- or Groupon-high (convulsive trembling!).

At the very least, Aereo may well be the stone that starts the avalanche–and which forces the network broadcasters and cable/satellite companies to scramble to avoid/minimize damage, if they can.

I think it’s an important phenomenon to monitor.

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