Supreme Court to Rule in Aereo Suit; Extreme Response from Networks Could Result

Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

April 22 is a big day for broadcasters and sports leagues alike when the Supreme Court takes up the case of Aereo Inc, the online video startup being sued by broadcasting giants CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC to cease all business activities.

The Wall Street Journal writes that broadcasters are currently devising contingency plans should the Supreme Court rule in Aereo’s favor, the most radical being CBS offering a service to stream online its network programming simultaneous with television broadcasts.

Aereo is a New York-based company backed by Barry Diller’s IAC that picks up “over-the-air” frequencies from network television providers and streams them over the internet for a fee.

Each Aereo user receives an individual remote antenna (think the traditional bunny ears) and allows users to stream broadcast television over the Web.  Broadcasters argue that Aereo is doing so without retransmission consent.

NFL, MLB Strongly Oppose Aereo

After the four major television broadcasters (CBS, Fox, ABC, NBC) took their case to the Supreme Court, the NFL and MLB filed a brief with the high court in November 2013 supporting the broadcasters’ petition.

The sports leagues warned that Aereo could trigger the end of free TV game broadcasts with leagues being forced to move their products to cable networks where “over-the-air” signals cannot be hijacked by Aereo or other such technologies.

The leagues’ stance is an extreme one, but it serves to point out that the price for ever-expensive television rights for their sports could trend downward if more and more audiences resort to Web-based consumption.

Battle Over Streaming Rights

The NFL and MLB already have streaming products NFL Game Pass and At Bat to monetize and deliver their content over the Web.

Aereo bypasses these league products for any game broadcasted on network television, including Sunday Night Football and Fox’s MLB Game of the Week, by picking up these airwaves and repackaging them through their own streaming service.  Aereo currently charges consumers $8 per month.

The Supreme Court ruling will be closely watched and whether the broadcasters or Aereo win in the suit, it’s clear the quest for viewers in the 21st century will be won or lost on the digital battlefield.

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