FilmOn streams some out-of-market locals

ABC 7 title cardFilmOn, the online TV service, is streaming some out-of-market over-the-air channels to at least one subscriber. Me.

As you may remember, I’ve been a FilmOn subscriber for almost a year now. This weekend, it was time to install FilmOn on a new laptop. When I went to to download the software, I was surprised to see several New York City channels available under the Local Channels heading:

  • WPIX (CW)
  • WNJU (Telemundo)
  • WNET (PBS)
  • Kids Thirteen (PBS Kids)
  • ABC 7 NY (WABC)
  • World (the former PBS World)

I believe that World had been available already for a while, but the rest of them were new. (I’m not certain that the World feed is from New York.) This was the list available on the FilmOn web site, and only when I logged in as a subscriber; when I visited as a guest or as a registered non-subscriber, I only saw World from this group. (Update: I now see them all even as a registered non-subscriber.)

All of these channels, along with the dozens of other FilmOn channels, were available through the web site’s embedded viewer. With every channel change, that viewer showed the message “Connecting to remote antenna”, then added a preroll advertisement, even for subscribers. All of the broadcast channels included a FilmOnX bug on an upper corner of the picture; the non-broadcast channels had the FilmOn bug instead.

I installed the FilmOn viewer for Windows, and when I launched it, I saw the same group of local channels except for the ABC and NBC affiliates. The standalone viewer never adds advertisements.

The remarkable story of FilmOn defies easy summary. It’s backed by Alki David, a self-described eccentric billionaire. It launched just after the ill-fated, streaming over-the-air signals based on a reading of the US Copyright Act that has since been rejected by the courts. FilmOn settled with the broadcast networks, including a promise not to do that again. Then another streamer, Aereo, won a first-round court case with its technology, based on banks of tiny individual OTA antennas, one for each viewer. FilmOn jumped on that bandwagon, and may be using that method now.

(If you want more FilmOn tangents, David has reportedly been sued for harassment and replied by posting the apparent video of the incident. And FilmOn sued Fox for libel, claiming that the network was telling computer companies to stay away from FilmOn. And that was just last week.)

The really weird part is that I was watching New York locals in Denver just a few weeks ago. It was all legal; I was in a Frontier Airlines plane taxiing to the gate, and DirecTV was still on the seatback display. I had noticed that the Denver TV affiliates had not been damaged by this competition, and I wished that there were some way to watch the New York channels again some day. Now part of that wish has come true. I have no idea if I have magical status in FilmOn’s subscriber database or if every subscriber can see this. (Update: The FilmOn subscriptions page now includes the option of “Local Channels NY”. So maybe it’s not just me.) I have no idea whether this will last until morning or for years to come. That’s the thing about us free-to-air TV people. We know to enjoy what we can watch for as long as we can.