Gordon Smith at NAB Show keynoteNAB president Gordon Smith made a surprising appeal to TV broadcasters at the NAB Show keynote this morning. “The time has come for us to unite in our embrace of new technology,” Smith said, “and to realize the consequences if we don’t.”

I had expected that this NAB keynote address would be similar to those of years past, when speakers extolled the virtues of letting the marketplace work for retransmission consent (meaning that the stations have cable systems over a barrel and should be allowed to continue to take advantage), and that non-broadcast alternatives were inferior and should be fought with whatever means are available. Not this year.

Smith prepped his audience by quoting Winston Churchill, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” Then rather than rail against Aereo and other threats to TV broadcasters’ second revenue stream, he seemed to suggest that the folks in the room should get out in front of streaming trends.

“For television, our future lies in our willingness to embrace new platforms, and to go where our viewers want to go,” Smith said. “Emerging technology presents a great opportunity for broadcasters to provide viewers with our highly valued content anywhere, on any device, anytime they want it.” Then he started talking about mobile TV, which is getting pushed harder this year. More about that in a later post. You can read a transcript of his prepared remarks here.

Smith was followed by Greg Walden (R-OR), chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. Walden threw some red meat to the crowd, chastising the slow deliberations or overreach of the FCC. Mentioning the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), Walden said he’d have several more hearings and that he’s “not convinced that retransmission consent need reforming”.

After Walden was through, Smith returned to the podium and went off script. Not looking at the teleprompters, Smith told the broadcasters in the room that they need to reach out to their representatives so they’d become as informed as Walden. “Democracy goes to those who get involved,” Smith said.

I’ve said before here that Gordon Smith has been a much better spokesman for the NAB than his predecessor, even when he’s said things I disagree with. Today, he was more than a spokesman; he was a leader.

closeup of a court gavel on cash

© Depositphotos.com / Tom Schmucker

This morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court ruling denying a preliminary injunction against Aereo, the streaming service for over-the-air TV.

Two of the three judges found that the TV networks that filed the lawsuit are unlikely to prevail when the case is brought to trial. The third dissented, and I find his reasoning a little twisted.

Recall that, in order to obey copyright laws that each viewer access his own physical TV antenna to stream over-the-air channels, Aereo installed large banks of dime-sized antennas. Each subscriber gets access to one of those every time he watches something.

Judge Denny Chin wrote, “The system is a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, over-engineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act.” Well, yeah. It would have been a lot simpler to use one common antenna and copy the signal to everybody, but Aereo was forced into that “over-engineering” to make sure it obeys the law. What’s the problem with that?

I wonder if this comes too late to work into the keynote speech at next week’s NAB Show. Broadcasters are not happy about the possibility of some of their lucrative retransmission consent fees to viewers with OTA antennas. In a statement, NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said “NAB is disappointed with the Second Circuit’s 2-1 decision allowing Aereo to continue its illegal operations while broadcasters’ copyright actions are heard. We agree with Judge Chin’s vigorous dissent and, along with our members, will be evaluating the opinions and options going forward.” So I guess that next week, we’ll all have more to talk about.

map of Major League Baseball territories

Major League Baseball territories, from Wikipedia

Baseball’s Opening Day always makes me feel like a 10-year-old. I grew up watching the local team on local TV. In those days before cable, I was lucky to see 60 games a year that way, usually on the independent station, plus the NBC Game of the Week on Saturdays. I got to know who the players were, and both the sport and the team grew on me. That team’s unwitting investment then paid off with years of game tickets, video subscriptions, and pilgrimages to baseball parks.

One of the lures of FTA satellite TV when I started with it was major league baseball. A lot of teams had regional over-the-air packages of games for stations within their territories. Thanks to MLB’s inscrutable territory rules, some cities were claimed by several overlapping teams. And some of the stations in those cities took advantage of that.

Buffalo NY is claimed by four teams – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and both New Yorks. One station there carried Mets, Yankees, and Indians games whenever they were available. (I guess they couldn’t get the Pirates.) Arkansas is claimed by Texas, Houston, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and stations there carried some of those games as well. I looked at these as the second incarnation of superstations – those satellite-delivered TV stations that delivered lots of programming, including baseball, starting in the late 1970s. WGN and TBS survived and morphed into true pay-TV networks, and only two of the remaining five legally defined superstations still carry baseball games. That sure was fun while it lasted!

(Of course, now if you want to see out-of-market baseball games, all you need is high-speed internet, MLB.TV, and enough cash to subscribe. If you’re a baseball fanatic, it’s a great deal. But I digress.)

What about today’s viewers? The National Association of Broadcasters said last June that a growing number of Americans, 54 million back then, rely on over-the-air TV. Almost 18% of households use OTA signals to watch, up from 15% in 2011. That’s not the 99% of my youth, but it’s still a lot of people.

How is baseball reacting? By sharply curtailing OTA broadcasts. In an effort to squeeze every dime out of every game, most teams have sold all their games to regional sports networks. For 2013, only 10 of the 30 MLB teams plan to broadcast as many as five of their games via OTA. Aside from the two Chicago teams, which still use WGN, only Philadelphia and the Dodgers plan over 25 OTA games this year. (There’s also a weekly regional game on Fox (PDF schedule), but that won’t be much help to get folks to identify with their hometown team.)

Baseball probably won’t see any negative results from cutting off OTA until today’s 10-year-olds grow up and get some money in their pockets. The ones who never got to watch games on TV probably won’t be fans, and they won’t buy tickets. If the backlash against pay TV grows, baseball will miss even more young never-will-be fans. One day, they’ll realize what happened, but by then, it’ll be too late.

Dish CEO Joe Clayton announces Happy Hopper Day on February 12.

Dish CEO Joe Clayton announces Happy Hopper Day on February 12. (from the @DISHNews Twitter feed)

I’m getting tired of this.

Fox Broadcasting has asked for a preliminary injunction against Dish Network to block the new features of its Hopper with Sling receiver. “Paying Dish for a satellite television subscription does not buy anyone the right to receive Fox’s live broadcast signal over the Internet or to make copies of Fox programs to watch ‘on the go,’ because Dish does not have the right to offer these services to its subscribers in the first place,” Fox said. A hearing is set for March 22. (You can read more about it from Bloomberg or Multichannel News.)

Where to begin? None of these features are new, they’re just more convenient. I’ve been watching Fox over-the-air broadcasts (among others) remotely through my older Dish receiver for a couple of years now. I’ve been recording Fox shows on various DVRs for over a decade. (There are times I still miss my TiVo.) While watching those shows on my DVR, I’ve skipped past commercials. And for a few special occasions, I’ve recorded those shows to my computer and transferred them to a mobile device. All of these actions are legal, fair use for my private viewing.

And how did Fox get those programs to me? By broadcasting over the public airwaves that it is licensed to use, for which it paid next to nothing. In exchange for serving us, the viewers, who own those airwaves. If some new technology allows more in-market viewers the opportunity to watch more of an OTA station’s programming, I would expect that the broadcaster would be all for it. Instead, we have a system where anyone who doesn’t watch with an OTA antenna is expected to pay for the privilege, money that goes to enrich the broadcaster’s shareholders.

The good news, if there is any here, is that Dish Network may be the least court-averse company in the USA, and it has extremely deep pockets. I expect that Dish will fight this as far as it can go, and if we’re all very lucky, Dish might be able to establish a legal precedent to show that watching TV from your own OTA antenna is always okay, even when it’s on a smartphone in another city. Then broadcasters might be forced to remember that they need to serve viewers as well as shareholders.

 

Verizon booth at CESIn his Broadcast Engineering Blog, Phil Kurz writes about a part of CES that I missed, but which might be important. The event was one of the keynotes, which I avoid at CES because they rarely include anything new and substantial. Kurz caught something in Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam’s afternoon keynote on CES’s opening day. (You can watch that keynote here.)

In his keynote, McAdam unveiled LTE Broadcast, a new way to use wireless phone spectrum to deliver video to viewers. As McAdam explained, “We are also developing a service to broadcast live video over LTE. Now to do that today, we have to dedicate a separate channel to each individual user, which uses up capacity pretty fast as you can imagine. With LTE Broadcast, we’ll be able to stream to everybody over the same channel at the same time.”

Kurz offers the proper perspective to this announcement: “What a revolutionary concept! Transmit, excuse me, that’s stream, ‘to everybody over the same channel at the same time.’ Where have I heard of that before? Oh, that’s right. There’s already nearly 1800 full-power commercial and public television stations that are streaming, excuse me, that’s transmitting, digital video and audio content on their own ‘same channel at the same time’ to everybody.”

There’s a lot more to Kurz’s blog post about the silliness of taking broadcast TV spectrum away and handing it to broadcast video. You really should go read it!