By John Lichman | Indiewire August 15, 2012 at 1:16PM
The traditional cable box many of us grew up with has gone out the window and left many providers confronting their own future. Over the last five years, Apple TV and Roku have emerged as alternatives to the typical cable subscription that includes hundreds of channels, many of which go unwatched. They've allowed the consumer to pick and choose from a more niche selection across the iTunes store, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix or even apps for ESPN or YouTube using an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. The last hurdle, however, has been the broadcast channels, the live TV you'd traditionally get with an outdated set of "bunny ears" antennas -- which is where Aereo comes in for those viewers who live off their tablets, phones, laptops and other cord-cutter standards.
Founded by Chaitanya Kanojia, more informally Chet, Aereo is a subscription service that lets you view broadcast channels (e.g. Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, The CW) to tablets, smartphones, laptops and alternative boxes like Apple TV and Roku. Now officially out of their beta phase, it's currently only available for subscribers and viewers based around the New York City area. It operates just like the old days of TV, but with far less of a need to smack the box. A series of tiny antennas allow individual access to the broadcast networks and, more importantly, a DVR-option that doesn't tie you to a single device.
"What we offer consumers is ease and simplicity of use (no box, no cord, no app to install), portability (on any device) and a user interface that is elegant and simple to navigate," Virginia Lam, Aereo's VP of communications and government relations, told us via email. "We view Aereo as a neutral technology platform. Aereo is at the forefront of a la carte programming, a place where consumers can control their choices and we believe that there will be content creators that come into the market to program specifically for this audience."
It's becoming a tough sell for cable/dish providers and networks to keep viewers locked into contracts when the "a la carte" functionality can work wonders if you're a media transient constantly moving or if you simply just like watching "American Idol" for three months -- which under Aereo would cost around $24 and net you 20 hours of recordable TV. But Aereo's biggest asset also functions like a giant target for the American Broadcast Companies (the dream team of NBC, Fox, et all) and the New York-based PBS channel WNET, which filed a lawsuit to shut down the burgeoning site earlier this summer.
Broadcasters don't want Aereo to have the ability to "time-shift" during a broadcast to a format that isn't in your possession. Basically, they're anti-cloud DVR. In 2007, Cablevision, a cable service provider for Long Island, transitioned their DVR recording from being in the subscriber's home to a massive hub in their personal office. So far, sounds normal to us today, right? Well, back then it was seen as as a huge problem and Hollywood quickly got litigious. In 2008, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the recording because it's essentially capable of recording something once before it gets written over and is for a single subscriber.
This is why Aereo's own antennas provide subscribers with a single DVR capable of recording one program at a time. "All of this thinking came together to form the basis of the development behind Aereo's innovative technology -- the individual, integrated remote antenna/DVR," said Lam. Aereo claims not to want to "recreate the cable model," nor do they see themselves as a service, but a tech company -- currently backed by Barry Diller's IAC -- providing "a great, cost effective alternative."You can try out Aereo for free here, though you shouldn't be surprised if you get a "We're very sorry, but..." message as antennas are priority broadcasting to subscribers.
But trying out the model for a dollar (the price of a day pass) can quickly get you hooked, especially when it means getting access to major sporting events or upcoming fall premieres via your web brower as the tech spreads out to 10-15 new cities over the next year and a half according to the company. Live television remains one of the major sell points for cable services to keep customers in an age where so many shows are available on other platforms the days after their premiere -- even NBC's extensive online streaming of the Olympics required you to prove you have a cable or satellite subscription. Aereo provides potential liberty from those ties and from having television-only access, something that could have appeal to a generation coming up whose TV-watching experience has been very different from that of their parents.
There are minor detractions -- for instance, if you have an outlet or digital antenna in your home, you can still get these channels for free. But that gets overlooked the second you have the freedom to take a show and watch it across multiple platforms -- which most viewers have become accustomed to being able to do now anyway. They just call it Netflix or iTunes instead of Time Warner.