Sports leagues weigh in against streaming OTA channels

View of Fenway Park from the right-field seatsRemember our old friend Aereo, the service that records and streams over-the-air TV programming to local-only subscribers for a small fee? Broadcasters are upset that Aereo is making viewers pay to watch free OTA TV. No, scratch that. Broadcasters are upset that Aereo is providing a way for some people to stop paying broadcasters (through retransmission consent fees) to watch free OTA TV.

As long as Aereo keeps winning in preliminary injunction cases in US District Court cases, it can continue to survive and expand until the matter is decided in a full trial. And then until that trial’s results are appealed and re-appealed to the US Supreme Court. A few weeks ago, broadcasters attempted to shorten that process by requesting that the Supreme Court consider the case this year. That request has brought out a lot of amicus briefs from everyone all the way down the money tree. ASCAP, The Media Institute, the Screen Actors Guild and other Hollywood unions have joined in urging the Supreme Court to slap down Aereo.

This week, the National Football League and Major League Baseball filed their anti-Aereo amicus. As reported in Multichannel News, they wrote, “If copyright holders lose their exclusive retransmission licensing rights and the substantial benefits derived from those rights when they place programming on broadcast stations, those stations will become less attractive mediums for distributing copyrighted content.” And the leagues threatened to move their games to cable TV channels which aren’t available with Aereo.

This is goofy for at least a couple of reasons. The first reason is those sports leagues have already begun moving their games to cable channels. Unless you live in New York or Chicago, when was the last time you saw your local baseball team on OTA TV? Except for a scattered handfull, those games are already gone. The NFL hasn’t done as much yet, but it moved Monday Night Football, a cultural ritual for over 40 years, from OTA to ESPN, and its expanding set of Thursday night games are on the NFL Network. For the second this is goofy, consider who’s watching those games – viewers in their home markets. Viewers who could plug in an OTA antenna and probably watch for free anyway.

(The NFL says it’s concerned that the court case could open the door to out-of-market viewers and thereby undermine its Sunday Ticket subscription service. I had speculated that this was the main worry with nimbleTV’s early offering of New York City local channels to anyone who wanted to pay for them.)

It’s all about the money. If broadcasters get less retransmission cash, then they won’t have as much to offer when it’s time to bid on rights to sporting events. Fewer bidders means a lower contract price for the winner.

Yesterday at a Bloomberg conference in Chicago, Aereo financier Barry Diller summed up the NFL and MLB’s announcement pretty well. He said, “They are just making noise.”