Bob Garfield wrote a column this week about the withering of the Big 4 broadcast networks. He concludes, “The question, therefore, should not be how the Big 4 can cure what ails them. They cannot cure what ails them.” Go read the whole thing, then come back so we can talk about it.

Most of Garfield’s points are absolutely right. As I mentioned awhile back, viewer fragmentation is keeping broadcast TV alive. As viewers scatter, advertisers can still find them in the largest groups watching broadcast channels.

But I disagree that the Big 4 absolutely cannot create breakout hits like Mad Men or Game of Thrones. At its peak, Lost drew over 20 million viewers but Mad Men has trouble reaching 4 million. What does that make, say, The Mentalist with over 14 million viewers? A hit? Mediocre?

The scale and the stakes are different for cable networks than they are for broadcast. The scale is obvious; Fox swiftly cancelled Firefly (4.5 million viewers), but on FX, The Shield ran for seven years (2-3 million).

The different stakes are not so obvious. Broadcast networks need to get acceptable overall ratings to keep their affiliates and advertisers happy. Cable networks need a big hit or two to ensure that customers subscribe to their channels, but the rest of the lineup can be retreads, reruns and filler.

The kicker is that six corporations own all major broadcast and cable networks. So losing a viewer from broadcast to cable doesn’t subtract money from a corporation’s profit, it just shifts it from one pocket to another.

Considering all this, broadcast network programming choices make a lot more sense. Competition and reality shows are cheap to make, and some of them become hits anyway. There’s no need to try to fill the schedule with high-quality scripted programming. If you go too lax and overall ratings suffer enough to rile the affiliates (see: NBC), then bump up the quality and get back in the ratings pack.

In other words, the Big 4 can cure a lot of what ails them. There’s no reason they can’t spend money and take chances to make the next Lost or 24. But it’s a lot safer for the Big 4 to avoid all that. They simply don’t care that much about finding a new cure.

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.

TV Rabbit EarsThe past couple of weeks have underlined just how important broadcast TV can be.

First came Sandy, which wreaked havoc in the Northeast. Millions of people were left without electricity, so the internet was pretty much unavailable. Cell phones ran out of juice, and that was when they were near cell towers that were still working. In the middle of all this, people stayed as warm as they could and watched battery-powered TVs and radios for news and entertainment. As Phil Kurz wrote in Broadcast Engineering Blog, “Even as this week’s hurricane should raise serious doubts about the reliability of cellular service in an emergency, television broadcasters continue to transmit lifesaving alerts and information to the public.”

Then came Tuesday’s election, which drowned out most of the discussion of the performance of the internet during the returns. Analytic sites such as beefed up with extra servers but were still swamped. Long-standing media sites such as CNN saw page loads slow to a crawl, when they worked at all. During all that, the broadcast and cable news channels kept a constant update of the latest information.

The internet and broadcast should complement each other. Nothing matches the drill-down, on-demand information that the internet can provide, and so far, nothing matches the one-to-many outreach that broadcast TV supplies. As the wireless industry works to wrest away chunks of free TV spectrum, we should remember that a lot of times, wireless is cool, but broadcasting is important.

Aereo antenna arrayAereo, the embattled over-the-air TV streaming service, got what was effectively an endorsement from the Consumer Electronics Association. The CEA filed an amicus brief in support of Aereo as it defends a lawsuit brought by broadcasters.

Previously, consumer groups Public Knowledge and the Electronic Freedom Foundation had also filed amicus briefs supporting Aereo. And so did the Computer and Communications Industry Association. CCIA president Ed Black said, “TV broadcasters are essentially complaining that Aereo is disrupting their existing business model. However, in the past, the Supreme Court has recognized that it is best for Congress to decide whether or not it is desirable to expand protections of copyright owners to respond to changes in technology. We agree that Congress, rather than the court system, would have more flexibility to address TV broadcasters complaints without creating uncertainty for Internet innovators and investors.”

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CEA, said “the case will hinge on basic principles from the 1984 Supreme Court Sony Betamax case, the Magna Carta decision of our industry defining full recording of broadcast television as a fair use and allowing innovation in technology. The Aereo case, like the Sony Betamax case, is a challenge to innovative technology allowing people to conveniently access free, over-the-air broadcasting. In Sony, it was time shifting broadcasting by a VCR; in Aereo, it is accessing free broadcasting  through a computer.  In both cases, the technology expands the audience, is consistent with broadcaster-borrowed use of public spectrum for free, over-the-air broadcasting and is being challenged as it is disruptive, new and not allowing consumer control by old industries.”

So that’s all good, but another twist came to light this week. Todd Spangler of Multichannel News reported that Aereo filed a patent in February on its system to stream TV to viewers outside their “home market”. Although you can only sign up for Aereo signals from your home market (currently just New York City), you might be able to watch your streaming signal from your personal Aereo antenna even when you’re on the road. Which is pretty much what I can do with my Sling-enabled Dish Network receiver. I wonder what’s new in that patent?

Anyway, here’s a video report of what Aereo is like, if you haven’t seen it already.

Alki David's Twitter photo

@alkidavid‘s Twitter profile photo

Eriq Gardner at The Hollywood Reporter just published an amazing, solid biography of Alki David, the self-described eccentric behind FilmOn. It provides such an entertaining look into the background of David, the fun guy, and FilmOn, the company that is bucking a huge, entrenched industry.

Who knew, before this article, that Charlie Sheen, Ice-T, and Andy Dick are board members of FilmOn? Who knew about the reason David fired a supermodel from his new over-the-air station? There is such a wealth of interesting information here that you just have to read the article.

The part that leaves me wanting more is David’s quote that “We have deployed over 2.5 million (tiny OTA) antennas in major cities all around the country.” Wouldn’t it be great to get Aereo-style OTA channels available through FilmOn? I’m looking forward to it.