How are TV networks and cable companies responding to sweeping changes in consumers’ viewing habits? Well, they’re offering us Hulu, a streaming video service that charges a lot of money to deliver a small, and bafflingly random, collection of first-run TV shows. Or, we can buy individual episodes of some programs at prices that are only attractive to people who, somehow, are looking forward to viewing this week’s episode of ‘The Mentalist’ with their grandchildren one day.
Yes, TV networks are willing to give us television any way we choose, so long as we choose not to have it the way we actually want it.
Aereo.com streams TV through the Internet, and it does it simply and straightforwardly ... the way we’d want. Pay a low subscription fee for access to the service and you can watch live, broadcast television through a web browser on your computer or mobile device. It’s like having a digital antenna on your iPad. Every over-the-air local station — all of the major networks and even that weird one that only shows episodes of “McHale’s Navy” in Portuguese — is right there, live, and accessed through a slick interactive program guide. There’s even a DVR feature.
The service is only available in New York City right now. But it’s expanding into Chicago, Boston, and 20 other cities soon. Visit www.aereo.com to put your name on the waiting list.
How did Aereo strike deals with all of the networks, and every local station in each one of these markets? It seems like an impossible challenge, particularly for a startup.
Aereo had a clever solution: They didn’t bother. Instead, they erect an array containing thousands of micro-antennas (each the size of a coin) in every city. Each Aereo subscriber has exclusive, private access to one antenna. Amazingly enough, this makes it all perfectly legal.
Or at least it’s legal enough that when lawyers representing networks and cable operators immediately descended upon Aereo like the ghouls escaping from the Ark of the Covenant, a New York judge told them to go away and cited the “Cablevision Decision.” This 2007 ruling declared that the remote DVR features offered by cable operators were different from “rebroadcasting” and thus didn’t require an additional licensing agreement with the content providers. The TV programs that the cable company records, stores, and transmits are created at the specific command of an individual subscriber, who then has sole access to them. “Broadcasting” indicates sending something out to the public, not to just one house in private.
What Aereo does is much the same sort of thing. So they’re free to continue to operate in New York City, and they can expand to the rest of the country.
I love Aereo, just for the sheer guts of the undertaking. The fact that the whole thing works is almost just a bonus.
And it does work. Very well, in fact. The video is delivered in emphatic, gorgeous HD when you’re watching on an ultra-high-resolution display through a high-bandwidth home network. But it worked fine on all of the networks I tried, including a 3G phone connection. If I encountered stuttering or rebuffering, the web-based player’s manual video quality controls allowed me to choose a setting that suited my bandwidth limitations.
The DVR has all of the features you’ve grown accustomed to. You can record an individual show or a whole series, and adjust the recording time so that when an unnamed pointy-ball-chasing game goes long, it won’t cause you to miss the last 20 minutes of “The Amazing Race.”
The only real limitations of Aereo are the result (presumably) of the need for the service to stay cleanly inside the bounds of legality. Aereo subscribers are leasing access to the local broadcast programming that’s available via a physical antenna. Therefore, Aereo won’t allow that programming to be viewed outside of its original broadcast area. This aces the service out of a number of obviously desirable features.
I live in the Boston area. Can I watch “Late Show with David Letterman” via the local CBS affiliate when I’m in San Francisco? Nope. Can I at least watch programs that I’ve recorded on my Aereo DVR? Nope...when I’m outside of the Boston broadcast area, I can only schedule new recordings. I can’t watch them until I get back home.
How about if I travel to Chicago, or another city covered by Aereo? I still can’t watch any of my Boston programming. But I can watch live local Chicago TV.
Aereo uses a combination of GPS and WiFi information to fix your location. I was only able to test out the New York City service from here in New England thanks to a special press demo account. I’m left pondering one last question. When I’m using a public open WiFi, I secure my traffic by routing it through a remote VPN server located in another city. Will that interfere with Aereo? I’ve been told that the service is set up to handle these exceptions with dignity, using honor system-style questioning as a last resort.
Aereo, despite being locked to the user’s home broadcast area, is still a compelling service. Even if I never leave my house, Aereo will deliver something that’s seemed like an impossible miracle since 2009: “Letterman” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Yes, in 2009, when analog TV signals were shut off for good, I lost CBS and a bunch of other broadcast networks with less-than-perfect signals.
The loss wasn’t worth getting a cable hookup for every room in my house where I might watch TV, and it wasn’t worth having an outdoor antenna permanently installed on a pole on my roof, either. Are these channels worth $80 a year via Aereo? Sure, especially if it means that I can also watch live TV and recorded programs pretty much everywhere within 50 to 75 miles of my house, and on my iPhone or iPad as well.
The $80 is just if you go for the annual subscription (and the biggest discount). You can pay as you go for as little as $8 a month, or even pay a single damn dollar to access Aereo for just a day. No contracts, no penalties: one dollar to get TV for a whole day.
Aereo makes sense even when you consider it alongside other “real TV on your computer or mobile device” services or solutions. Aereo lets you watch TV through a web browser with no setup at all, and you control everything with simple clicks and taps. Aereo isn’t necessarily better than any of the alternatives, but it’s unique; none of the others works in quite the same way.
Take Slingbox, for example. It’s a unit that you install between your cable box and your TV. It streams out all of the cable box’s video output over your home broadband connection and can control the cable box by pinging out infrared signals like a universal remote control. You can watch any channel or recorded program from anywhere in the world, via either a web browser or through client apps for Android and iOS.
Unless your cable company happens to offer streaming services, Slingbox is the best and most complete solution available. I’ve had one in my house for years. But there’s a large upfront cost ($179 or $299), and watching video through your mobile devices requires the purchase of additional apps. The setup might be straightforward, but it’s not trivial, like Aereo.
And whereas selecting a channel or a recorded program in Aereo is no more difficult than clicking around inside your desktop or mobile media player, controlling your home cable via Slingbox is like controlling the Mars Curiosity rover. You click a button on the onscreen remote, then you wait for that command to be transmitted back to your cable box, then wait for the screen to update and show you the results of that command. Then you enter the next command in the sequence. Navigating through onscreen menus is therefore quite a nuisance.
For now, Aereo is only accessible through desktops and iOS devices. Soon, the service will be available to Android users as well, and the ability to watch TV through a Roku streaming box is just a week or two away. The company has also told me that its moving towards creating mobile apps that will create a quicker and more interactive environment than what’s currently possible through a mobile web browser.
When I think about canceling my cable subscription, I think about a game that ends once you reach 100 points. Every petty annoyance created by a cable or broadcast company, and every great alternative offered by nontraditional digital media, adds more points to the total. My score was at 88 before I tried Aereo.com. Now I think I’m at 94.
Do I really hate conventional delivery that much? Naw. I’m just a modern TV viewer. Habits that I’d had since childhood have been broken into a thousand pieces. A computer isn’t a special machine in a special room that I use while sitting in a specific chair. My computer moves with me. I want my TV to work in the same way, and I find it frustrating that the networks and cable companies don’t want to accommodate me. They seem to think that they can force me to ignore my natural wants and make me sit down on my sofa in the living room in front of a TV set connected to a cable box at an appointed hour of a certain day. It’s baffling, but yes, they think they can return me to my 1990 viewing habits by limiting my options and refusing to release products as simple and logical as Aereo.
But “life finds a way,” to quote the noted chaos theory expert Jeff Goldblum in the 1993 nature documentary “Jurassic Park.” He was referring to the folly of scientists who believed that by considering every possible variable and engaging in some shrewd tinkering and management, they could populate a whole island with hundreds of Mack truck-sized meat-eating dinosaurs and keep them 100 percent under human control.
Jeff Goldblum is a smart guy, except for the time he turned himself into a human fly and then cheated on Emma Thompson in that other movie. His wise words might just as easily have applied to society’s natural movement away from conventional television, and the folly of networks.
The networks can continue to protect a 75-year-old broadcast model, and a 30-year-old home video model, instead of creating new digital distribution systems. They can fool themselves into believing that they can control our viewing habits. But so long as consumers continue to move away from those outdated concepts, and towards a new kind of TV that’s flexible and portable...life will find a way.
Jeff Goldblum understood this. He got off the island. The lawyer got eaten. The networks and cable operators would be wise to watch that movie and take careful notes. If they watch it via pay-per-view in their living rooms, then the lesson probably didn’t take.