Broadcast television is pretty simple. A station secures a license from the FCC granting it the privilege of broadcasting television signals from a specific location on a specific frequency with a specific level of power, in the “public interest”. It then creates or acquires programming to serve the public, some of which is gained by affiliating with a national network, embeds advertising in that programming, and pipes it to their licensed transmitter. Finally, they send big bills to the advertisers which lets them pay for the programming and make great piles of money.
Somewhere along the line, in the late 1960s in my home town, cable systems were created that put up large dish antennas to pull in those broadcast signals, amplify them, and send them through coaxial cables to homes that didn’t want to erect their own antennas. In the case of my home town, the only stations that readily came in were from Canada, or one Bellingham station that primarily served Canadian markets, and you had to sign up for cable to get the Seattle stations. This had the effect of extending the reach of the Seattle broadcasters, three network affiliates and two independents, making their advertising more valuable.
But it seems that once someone starts making serious money in business they get greedy. Specifically, instead of thanking the cable companies serving outlying communities for helping to make the broadcasters’ channels more remunerative, they demanded, and got, a cut of the action, which they called retransmission fees.
A New York startup called Aereo is going back to the beginning. They’re putting up arrays of antennas to pick up all the signals in the New York City area and streaming them over the internet. The broadcasters are unhappy, Aereo isn’t cutting them in on the play. Broadcasters — including News Corp, Disney, Comcast, CBS, and Univision — have already sued to stop Aereo twice, and lost both times. Claiming that they can’t go back to the business model that made them all spectacularly wealthy, CBS, Fox, and Univision are publicly musing about simply taking their signals off the air, according to “Broadcasters Circle Wagons Against a TV Streaming Upstart” by Brian Stelter in today’s New York Times.
Poor little rich boys got their feelings hurt, now they want to take their ball and go home. If I Were King I’d say that was just fine and dandy. And I’d order the FCC to auction off the newly-unused spectrum after 24 hours. Better yet, declare this precious public resource to be available to the public for low-power systems such as wireless microphones and ad hoc community internet cooperatives.