Aereo: Beyond the Hype

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Yesterday, Andrew talked a bit about the Supreme Court ruling against Aereo. He sees it as a systemic attack on distributors who are trying to deliver content the way the consumer wants. I disagree with him for a couple of reasons.

First, I don’t see this, the Hachette-Amazon thing, or the ongoing net neutrality debate as an overarching attack on innovators. For one thing, Aereo wasn’t an innovator in the technological sense. Their innovation was in their business model — provide what consumers could get for free with the slight upgrade for a built-in DVR. These are all cases where companies are moving with the dollars, not to crush new things just because.

Second, Andrew argued this isn’t about copyright. But that is all that is was about. Aereo takes television signals and rebroadcasts them to you, without you needing an antenna. Sound familiar? That’s because they are a cable company. Only they were trying to bypass paying for copyrighted content by challenging the definitions in copyright law. It was bound to end up in court someday, and it feels to me like the SCOTUS made the right call. Just because the collection and delivery method is different from cable companies doesn’t mean Aereo gets to dodge

Don’t get me wrong, I admire Aereo’s moxie. Every year brings new technologies and new ways of using old technologies. Aereo challenged the status quo by trying something different. The issue is that there is a perception that over-the-air TV is free. It is not. It costs money to make, it costs money to broadcast, and it costs the viewer the time and attention we spend watching commercials.

Could someone take HBO’s broadcasts and retransmit them for negligible cost without paying HBO? Of course not, that is absurd and is called piracy. Can we really blame the big networks for trying to protect their IP, or rather, trying to protect a potential source of revenue? The only thing that really miffs me about the networks (and others out there) is that they aren’t trying very hard to capture the cord-cutting market segment. It may be small now, but if you offer a low-cost alternative to buying pricey cable packages, you have a better chance than none to get my money. Yes, they’re already trying this with their own apps and things, but it’s been a rather anemic attempt thus far. Aereo created a new method of delivery. They, or someone like them, will try again.

This also brings up the issue of cloud computing. Or should I say, doesn’t bring it up. The SCOTUS ruling deliberately avoided trying to ruffle the cloud’s… fluffs (I don’t know?). Those declaring doom-and-gloom about cloud storage are worried over nothing.

Back to Andrew’s post. He brings up the cable companies and their tactics. I whole heartedly agree that cable and satellite TV is over priced. The business model for these companies is not about how to get the channels people want into their homes, it is how to leverage what people want into making more money.

There’s only a handful of TV shows I’m interested in. I’ll pick two, Doctor Who and The Walking Dead, as an example. To watch those shows on my TV, as they are broadcast, I need BBC America and AMC. To get those two channels, I have to order package x, which has 150 other channels I don’t give a crap about. To get them in HD, I have to order package y, which has a DVR that records five TV shows at once, even though I’ll never, ever need to record five things simultaneously. Both packages are way more money than I am willing to spend for two TV shows and occasional idle entertainment.

So I don’t buy either. (Incidentally, I’ve learned bundling isn’t the cable company’s fault, it’s the bargaining process the networks use to force more channels, and thus more fees, on the cable providers and their customers. All the more reason not to watch.)

I used to have Netflix, where I could watch these shows (eventually). Netflix also offers 10,000 hours worth of crap that I’m never going to watch, and maybe a few dozen movies or shows that I’m vaguely interested in.

I don’t have Netflix anymore.

If it feels like companies are conspiring to get you to subscribe to a service that nets them the most possible coin, that’s because they are. It’s their business, and they’ll do whatever they legally can. But no one is forcing you to pay for that service. In fact, the range of other options is remarkable. Netflix or Hulu stream over the web, you can buy shows on iTunes or Amazon, you can go to the network’s website and stream from them. I watch one of my favorites, South Park, almost exclusively on their website. And there is my favorite option: use your local library! They’ve got more than books!

If there is a show that I want to watch that isn’t available in an affordable mode, I do one of two things. I wait until it is available (I know, that dreaded word in our instantaneous world: wait), or I don’t watch it. I haven’t seen all of Breaking Bad, am I less human? I haven’t seen House of Cards, OITNB, or season 4 of Game of Thrones, and I can totally live with myself. There’s no need to “suffer” with expensive cable bills. If enough people stop paying for them, either the cable companies and networks will change to win customers back, or something will fill the gap and service the needs of the consumer.

Andrew says that “one way or another, consumer choice and innovation will force the hand of cable, publishing, and broadcasting corporations.” Thing is, that’s already happened. We’ve got more options than ever before, including the option we’ve always had: not watching. We are in the infancy of brand new ways of creating, distributing, and consuming content, but we need to remember something important. Nothing is free.

Copyright laws in this country are big and complicated and a pain in the ass, but we’ve got to deal with them (or change them, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing).

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