Could a FTA non-profit retransmit OTA channels?

Cablevision logoCablevision, stuck in an awful retransmission consent battle with Fox, issued the most amazing press release yesterday. It said that the 1976 Copyright Act allows any “governmental body, or other non-profit organization” to retransmit over-the-air (OTA) signals so long as it gains no commercial advantage and charges only enough to cover operating expenses.

Now this opinion is coming from a cable TV company. At this week’s earnings call, another cable giant, Comcast, said that it’s already losing subscribers to local OTA TV. What would happen to Cablevision if its subscribers had free access to lots of out-of-market OTA channels? When a company volunteers the idea that non-profits could legally take away its customers, you have to believe it, don’t you?

Fox doesn’t believe it. Fox quickly issued a statement that “It is alarming that Cablevision would put non-profits and governmental bodies at risk by encouraging them to violate the Copyright Act in order to gain a commercial advantage.” (That’s according to a story by Broadcasting & Cable’s John Eggerton.)

I am not a lawyer, and I know just enough about intellectual property to be dangerous. (In other words, don’t try any of this without consulting your own lawyers!) But for the rest of this post, let’s all pretend that what Cablevision said is true. Maybe it is.

Here is the cornerstone of what could be a great FTA satellite TV service. Imagine a non-profit FTA broadcasting organization; I’ll call it It could use dozens of volunteers with OTA antennas to send channels from all over the country to an uplink center via the internet. The uplink would combine a dozen or two of these channels and bounce them off a dedicated transponder. Anyone with an FTA dish would have access to SatFreeTV’s slate of channels, all for free. It would be just like FTA’s glory days with all of those Equity channels, except better.

Volunteers don’t get paid, and they might be able to pick up their own internet expenses, but satellite space definitely isn’t free. SatFreeTV would have to pay roughly $150,000 per year per transponder. Where would the money come from? As a qualified, educational non-profit, SatFreeTV could attract some grants from foundations, donations from FTA equipment vendors, and maybe even free services from uplink centers. Perhaps with a cluster of attractive channels in place, SatFreeTV could charge some religious channels enough rent to help pay the transponder bill.

The other volunteers that SatFreeTV would need are lawyers. Regardless of whether it’s legal, SatFreeTV would attract the same kind of lawsuits as and FilmOn. There wouldn’t be any investors to foot the legal bill in the hope of a big payoff down the road. Maybe SatFreeTV could give the Electronic Freedom Foundation a channel in exchange for continuing legal services.

Then there’s Congress. If SatFreeTV became sufficiently popular, I would expect sports leagues to go to Congress and testify that they were going to have to remove all games from free TV. Who is going to pay for an out-of-market sports package if they can get all the games elsewhere for free? Would Congress paper over that old Copyright Act exemption? Or would the collected voices of SatFreeTV viewers convince it to leave it alone? Since this is our daydream, we’re free to hope for the best.

I’ve often thought that FTA needs a non-profit organization. This technology is already a great way to watch dozens of channels that aren’t available anywhere else. If we could also add dozens of OTA channels, then we’d hit the jackpot.