The biggest legal battle in the history of broadcast television is about to take place, and almost nobody knows anything about it.
Later this month, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear a case that could have a profound impact on the television broadcasting industry and the type of access customers have to televised content. The ramifications of the case could see the biggest changes in television delivery since significant over-the-air TV broadcasting started in 1947.
On one side of this lawsuit are the four big television networks: CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox. On the other side is a two-year-old internet video-streaming company called Aereo. Aereo sells subscriptions to users for the ability to stream network television broadcasting directly to their computer, mobile device, or internet-equipped TV set.
At first glance, this seem pretty innocuous. Streaming TV content over the internet is common nowadays. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others provide television programming to millions of customers every day on all sorts of internet-enabled devices. A year ago, I wrote about how I ditched cable TV to go “internet-only” with my TV viewing, and it’s working just fine.
What Aereo is doing is different. Unlike the satellite and cable TV companies, Aereo sends network broadcast content to subscribers without paying rebroadcasting fees to the networks. They accomplish this by building server farms filled with thousands of tiny television antennas, each about the size of a dime. Each antenna is assigned to an individual Aereo subscriber; broadcast content is picked up by the antenna and streamed to the user. For this, the subscriber pays a monthly fee of between $8 and $12, depending on the market location.
The networks are livid about this. To them, Aereo is illegally rebroadcasting their copyrighted content without paying the proper fees. They say its a business plan based on theft.
Aereo argues that they are not, in fact, rebroadcasting anything and that their system works in a legal manner that dates back to the beginning of television.
Years ago, before cable and satellite TV became common, gaining access to television broadcasting content was a simple affair. You purchased a TV set. The set often had its own built-in antenna, the “rabbit ears” many of us remember. If you lived far away from a TV broadcasting location, you purchased a separate antenna and attached it to the roof of your house or atop a tower in your yard. You connected the antenna to your TV set with a wire and voila!, you got free television content grabbed out of thin air. At that point, until you decided to upgrade your TV set, you were essentially done paying for stuff. Sure, the antenna and the TV set needed periodic maintenance and repair, but the content itself was as free as the wind.
Aereo’s position is that they are essentially leasing an antenna to each of its subscribers and that it’s completely legal. The antenna is tiny and lives in a server farm, the wire is the internet, but the “free TV over the airwaves” model is the same as it ever was. Since each subscriber has a single antenna, the sending of video content to their device constitutes what is known as a “private performance” in copyright legalese. Rebroadcasting, which is what the cable and satellite companies do, is considered a “public performance,” and requires the permission of the copyright holder.
So far, Aereo’s legal argument has prevailed, forcing the networks to appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court. The networks are considering the possibility of losing their final appeal, so now they’re raising the stakes.
The networks are now saying that if they lose to Aereo in the Supreme Court they will stop broadcasting their popular programs over the airwaves. In essence, this would render Aereo’s victory meaningless, as their business model would collapse just as it would if the networks prevailed in the case. It’s unclear which programs would be pulled from the air and what might remain, but the gist is that Aereo would have nothing of value to sell.
Is this threat for real or is it a high-stakes bluff? If the threat is real, Aereo is out of business whether they win or lose. If the networks are bluffing and Aereo wins, they will expand to more major metropolitan markets and continue their successful growth (the service has proven hugely popular). For the networks, this has two dangerous consequences. First, more folks will dump their cable or satellite TV providers if they feel that Aereo, along with other internet TV sources, can replace them. This would threaten the billions in rebroadcasting fees the networks now enjoy. Second, it’s entirely plausible that the satellite and cable companies would consider adopting Aereo’s strategy to avoid paying the fees anyway.
My thought is that these threats are a last-minute attempt to get Aereo to negotiate some sort of licensing fee with the networks. For the networks, this would be the next best thing to an outright court victory—if they can’t destroy Aereo, at least they can make money off of them. My guess is that the network marketers and accountants are furiously crunching the numbers to see if they can actually afford to follow through on this threat.
If Aereo refuses to negotiate, wins the case, and the networks actually pull their over-the-air programming, the effect will be far more significant than the demise of an internet service company. It would be the end of television broadcasting itself, if you go by the traditional definition of the term.
People like me would hardly notice. I’ve been a cable user for most of my adult life and get everything from Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes these days. My colleagues are tech-savvy people who likewise can get the television they want on their chosen device, usually by paying either a monthly fee to a streaming service or by purchasing individual television programs. For us, this is no big deal.
There are others, however, who would be profoundly affected. There are people who live in places where there is no cable TV and no reliable high-speed internet. There are viewers who are resistant to change or simply don’t want to pay to watch TV. For them, their old antenna works just fine, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And there are folks, largely ignored by the digerati and tech press, that just don’t have the money to subscribe to cable or satellite TV. For them, if TV over the airwaves stops, their screens will show nothing.
It would be the end of free television, something we’ve taken for granted for almost 70 years. Something that’s always been there for the one-time price of a TV set and antenna. It would be the beginning of what I can only describe as a “pay as you go, for everything, forever” paradigm. I suppose folks aren’t particularly bothered by this—as long as they’ve got the money to spend. I recall a friend of mine saying years ago that some day all the televised sporting events that fans enjoy would become pay-per-view items. No more free stuff. That time may be closer than he thought.
Why isn’t this news story more widely known? To me, it comes down to a couple of things. First, it’s a complex story, one that can’t easily be explained by a 50-word soundbite on the evening news show. Second, I’m not sure that the networks want to broadcast a story about how they’re considering ending broadcasting.
In any case, viewers will await the outcome. The case goes before the Court on April 22 and a ruling won’t be announced for months. If Aereo loses, only their subscribers will notice. If the networks and Aereo strike a deal, their subscribers will likely notice a monthly fee increase. If Aereo wins and the airwaves fall silent, things will have forever changed, with millions of TV antennas reaching into the sky, catching nothing but the wind.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Leave a Comment
Tags: ABC, Aereo, antenna, broadcasting, CBS, Cloud TV, copyright, digital video, Fox, NBC, Netflix, Networks, Streaming TV, Supreme Court, television, video
As artists and communicators, we produce our creations using the current tools at hand. What we can create is largely dependent on those tools, but it’s also true that the tools at hand have an effect on the process of creating the work, the how it’s done aspect. Here’s an example of how a simple magazine cover illustration was produced in the “old school” days of analog photography.
For years I produced the photo-illustrations for the cover of a trade magazine called “Word of DQ.” This was distributed to the thousands of Dairy Queen franchise owners throughout the country and was produced by the DQ home office in Minneapolis. Each month’s issue had a lead story that had to be highlighted on the cover with an appropriate and eye-catching photo illustration.
These magazine covers were good examples of effective low-budget photo production. Each month, DQ’s art director and I had to come up with a visual idea that would represent that month’s lead story. The budget was tight—I would have perhaps a half day of billable time to bring the idea to life. It proved to be superb training in the art of visualizing ideas with economy and efficiency.
The theme was “Flipping the Switch,” a metaphor for the kickoff of a big new marketing program. The art director wanted to illustrate the concept by picturing some sort of switch being engaged, with special effects to depict sparks, lightning, or something of the sort. Of course, this being almost 20 years ago, none of this could be accomplished using digital means. Special effects back then had to be created in the studio.
Today, photo-illustrations often begin with someone scouring the internet for images. Sometimes, a stock photo image is found that conveys the idea well enough, and that’s the end of the process. Back then, image ideas came out of discussion, sketches, and maybe a trip to the local antique store.
At this stage of the process, lots of ideas got kicked back and forth. The art director wanted to have a visually-interesting switch for the illustration, and one of us (I forget who) came up with the idea of finding one of those old “steampunk-style” blade switches. You know, the type you’d find in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. I had actually managed to round up one of these from a collector.
Further discussion nixed that idea, with the visual emphasis of the concept moving from the switch itself to the idea of the energy produced (fire and sparks and all that). Thus it was decided that a regular light switch would be used (painted red for added visual impact) and that the sparks and background should have a contrasting blue color.
This was hastily sketched out and faxed to me. Here it is:
I’m sure this drawing didn’t take my client more than a minute to make. All art directors of that era were expected to have rapid drawing skills. Ideas had to be presented and “sold” to superiors and clients, and making a drawing of the proposed layout was the only way to do this before the Powerpoint age. Such comprehensive layouts could be finely detailed (and almost indistinguishable from the final product) or very fast and rough, like this one.
This came to my studio via fax machine, another technological relic. It was sized so that I could retrace the image onto clear plastic—this template could then be fastened to the ground glass viewing screen of my 4×5 view camera to better help me in composing the shot to precisely fit the layout of the publication.
Before the day of the shoot, I also did some prep work by spray-painting the household switch and visiting the local magic shop, where I purchased a few packs of “4th of July” sparklers.
I had created spark effects before using these incendiary devices. You can get some really interesting images by opening the camera’s shutter in a totally dark studio and “drawing” shapes in the air with the lit fireworks. I also knew that they produced lots of acrid smoke and can cause nasty burns if mishandled. Getting the right photographic exposure of the sparks and determining the right shapes to draw in the darkness would require some experimentation and testing with Polaroid instant film.
And so we began shooting Polaroids. Setting up the basic lighting for the light switch and hand was easy—this was lit with electronic studio flash lighting. Once we had this perfected, we wrote down the pertinent power settings and F-stop information.
The next tests took place in total darkness. I put a blue filter over the camera’s lens to get the color we wanted. Then, the camera shutter was opened and the art director lit the sparkler and “drew” shapes in the darkness radiating outward from behind the light switch. It took several tests using different F-stops to get this sorted out.
Finally, a composite test was done on Polaroid. The camera shutter was closed and the electronic flash lighting readied for the shot of the switch and hand. After this first shot was made, the film was left in place in the camera and the lighting turned off. The blue filter was put in place, and the shutter carefully re-cocked and set to “T” (time exposure). This had to be done without moving the camera, as this would ruin the registration of the two images. Finally, the sparkler motion work was done in the darkness. After this, the shutter was closed and the lights came back on. Finally, the Polaroid film was run through its 60-second process. Here’s the result, taped on a piece of scrap paper with my original tech notes:
Satisfied with the tests, we could then go on to expose some real 4×5 color transparency film. This two-step exposure process had to be done for every precious sheet, and although we had a good Polaroid test, we wouldn’t know if we actually had success until the film was processed the next day. Fortunately, it worked out rather well.
Today, such an image could be easily composited in PhotoShop from a couple of inexpensive stock images. Heck, something quite similar to this is probably available as a ready-to-go composite that can be had for a nominal fee. There’s so much of this sort of imagery for sale on the internet these days that an art director hardly has to leave his or her desk to get the images needed.
This is convenient, but it’s a bit of a shame. Things are easy and fast today, but I’m not sure they’re more creative. “Old School” meant experimentation, struggle, mishaps, improvisation, and sometimes failure. You learned valuable things in the process and ended up with a solution that was, if not quite as slick as today’s digital wonders, a hard-won victory. What you got for your smoke-filled studio and first-degree burns was an image that nobody else had, a totally custom solution to a visual challenge. For me, that was the reward.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: analog photography, commercial photography, old-school photography, photo-illustration, Photoshop, Polaroid testing, special effects