NFL can worry a little about Aereo

NFL Network booth in Times Square

© 2014 Depositphotos / zhukovsky

I spent some time in Europe the past few weeks. It’s great to hang around in London and watch Sky try to lure subscribers with the very notion of relatively inexpensive pay-TV, because the set of free channels is so broad and culturally expected. (Yes, I know that Britons pay the equivalent of about $10/month as a license fee already.) It was also a great way to stop pondering Aereo for a while.

I don’t like to write depressing stories, and my take on Aereo is just that. As I wrote in a Broadcasting & Cable comment, I expect that corporate interests will compel the US Supreme Court to block Aereo, although I expect the justices will need to find a way to do so without breaking various cloud computing precedents. Therefore, my guess is that the court will rule narrowly that Aereo’s multiple-antenna setup is the same functionally as a single antenna, so it loses. Waiting for the Aereo decision, expected any day now, is for me just waiting for the shoe to drop.

Today, The Washington Post reported that an Aereo victory would “change how we watch football”. The timing of that story is interesting, considering that the New England Patriots’ web site carried an independent story with similar talking points hours later. Then the Consumerist came along to debunk the Post story, saying that the NFL would not be significantly damaged. I don’t think either side of this argument got it right.

At present, Aereo only serves subscribers in a particular home TV market. Even if a valid subscriber is on the road, Aereo won’t let him watch TV from home. (On the other hand, my home-based SimpleTV receiver performed like a champ, letting me watch my local shows from a Paris hotel room. But I digress.) The Consumerist seemed to take this as a permanent restriction, so local viewers would only be watching the local stations they could get over-the-air anyway. But FilmOn, which piggybacks Aereo’s justification, streams out-of-market broadcast TV now and would probably carry more Fox and CBS affiliates as soon as it could. And Aereo might do something like that after its legal clouds are gone.

Then the Consumerist suggested that because it’s not easy to switch between distant OTA channels, then NFL Sunday Ticket should remain untouched. No, you just don’t get it. A very large percentage of Sunday Ticket customers are folks who love one out-of-market team and watch to watch that team’s every game. Once in a while, the idea of a slightly less expensive Sunday Ticket, limited to one team, is brought up then quickly discarded. Letting that chunk of subscribers walk away to Aereo or FilmOn would cost real money. But the online model is so tech-driven (for now) and so dependent on reliable high-speed internet that such mass migrations wouldn’t occur for years.

If Aereo wins, I’m sure the networks and sports leagues will run straight to Congress to get new protection laws. Should the NFL move further to pay-TV (remember, it already moved Mondays and some Thursdays), it woud just join every other major US sports league in abandoning OTA TV. At least we’ll still have the FIFA World Cup, in Spanish.