Aereo And The Death Of Broadcast TV

Includes: CBS, CBS.A, DIS, GE, NWS, NWSA
by: Felix Salmon

One of the funnier subplots in the media universe these days is the one about Aereo. Aereo is the kind of company which sounds like a thought experiment, but it’s very real: it takes free broadcast signals, uploads them to the cloud, and rents them out — at a fee — to people who want to watch broadcast TV on their computers. It’s a way of showing the broadcast networks how silly it is that they don’t put their programming online, and it’s also an argument for why cable companies shouldn’t have to pay through the nose for the right to retransmit content which has always been free-to-air.

Real-world companies are largely immune to thought experiments, however, and so it was only when Aereo started operating in the real world that the court cases and ultimatums started being thrown around. If Aereo isn’t shut down, say the broadcasters, they might have no choice but to take their networks off the air entirely. This of course would effectively kill Aereo, whose CEO is rather desperately drawing an analogy between the right to receive broadcast TV and the right to vote.

“The real question is a consumer question: Can you rightfully disenfranchise 50 million consumers?” he asked. “Is that what the preferred policy is?”

In the event that the networks did go through with it, he speculated that other programmers would be quick to replace them in the role of public broadcasters. “That spectrum is incredibly valuable. Somebody’s going to take advantage of that,” he said.

The 50 million number, by the way, should not be considered particularly reliable: it’s Aereo’s guess as to the number of people who ever watch free-to-air TV, even if they mainly watch cable or satellite. (Maybe they have a hut somewhere with an old rabbit-ear TV in it.)

But Aereo is absolutely right that America’s broadcast spectrum is incredibly valuable. The problem is that it’s much more valuable to cellphone companies than it is to broadcasters. The government has a plan to start a series of cleverly-designed auctions, whereby broadcast spectrum would end up being bought from broadcasters and consolidated in the hands of wireless-data companies who value it more highly. That plan can’t be put in place too quickly: the fact is that we’re living in a world where TV broadcasts create much less value than wireless companies could realize with a fraction of the bandwidth.

At the same time, broadcasters are realizing that their retransmission revenues are significantly more valuable than the marginal advertising revenues they get from households which are still reliant on rabbit ears. That trend is only going to strengthen going forwards, especially given that most new TV sets can’t even receive broadcast signals in the first place. What’s more, broadcasters can give themselves a little extra leverage if they shut down their free-to-air service (and Aereo). Once that happens, then if they refuse to provide retransmission rights during negotiations over retransmission rights, the cable companies’ customers will be cut off from their content entirely.

None of this is going to happen quickly, or cleanly. But broadcast TV is rapidly becoming an obsolete technology, and the distinction between cable channels and broadcast channels is a distinction which has outlived its usefulness. Aereo’s very existence is testimony to the silliness of the status quo, and the logical end point is for all the current broadcast spectrum to end up in the hands of institutions which can use it much more effectively as digital bandwidth.

The losers in this process will be Aereo, of course, and also the households which still rely on broadcast TV — somewhere between 10% and 15% of the total. I suspect, however, that those households are precisely the ones with the least amount of political clout. Which means that sooner or later, they’re going to lose their access to free-to-air broadcast TV. They won’t like it, but there’s pretty much nothing they can do to prevent it.

*Update: I’m informed that it’s actually illegal to sell a TV which can’t receive over-the-air broadcast signals. That said, it’s legal to sell a “monitor” which only has HDMI inputs, and which is designed to be used mainly as a TV.