Many people will say TV is in the throes of a creative peak, with shows like “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” at their best, and just coming off the end of “Breaking Bad.” Some will look at this period as when TV ratings were defined to include DVR +7, online viewing and more. Potentially, this is the year Apple will release a true TV experience integrated into its own large screen device, not just channeled through its own set-top box. With all of these going on at the same time, it can be easy to overlook the impending decision by the Supreme Court on Aereo, the little start-up that is disrupting network broadcast TV in ways unlike anything ever seen before.
Aereo, for those of you who don’t know, effectively pulls free network feeds out of the air and pushes them to your mobile devices, for a fee. Aereo is only available in 11 cities, and if the Supreme Court rules against the company, it will have to shut down. However, if the Supreme Court rules in its favor, TV as you know it is over.
More and more people are dropping their cable subscriptions in favor of the Web. I know people who did this 10 years ago, back when that move was almost unimaginable. These days you can pretty much watch whatever you want online. There are apps and websites to offer approved access and there are less legal means to see your favorite shows through Bit Torrents as well. For me it’s about watching a few basic shows I like, and sports. Most of these are available through my Apple TV, but a company like Aereo makes it possible to truly consider dropping cable for good, which is a scary thought for many companies.
The cable companies earn billions from customer subscriptions, and they in turn pay billions to the networks for the privilege of carrying their programming. From time to time we hear bitter disputes between networks and the carriers, which result in a channel being pulled for a time.
In the end though, the dispute get resolved because there are very few options for reaching the masses. Your grandparents aren’t interested in setting up a Web account to watch their favorite shows when they’ve built a habit of watching them in the living room, at an established time, on the screen they’re used to watching.
That is a habit, but one that younger generations don’t yet have. My kids think the “TV” is the tablet in their room. They don’t care for schedules – they watch “Oso” when they want to! For my generation, we go either way. I routinely watch shows on my iPad as well as on the screen in my living room, and if I get pushed too far by one side, I’m not unwilling to consolidate. I haven’t yet pulled the plug, but it could happen. It’s not so far-fetched!
So the Supreme Court is ruling for more than the life or death of a start-up. They’re ruling on the viability of business models and habitual changes that could affect the television industry for many, many years to come. If Aereo wins, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox will have to rethink how they offer their content across devices and how they monetize that content. If Aereo loses, the networks will still have to think this through, albeit with a little more breathing room. They may have saved their necks a little in terms of business model, and they may still be creating some of the most engaging, most interesting content on any screen, but they can sense the winds are shifting. The model of the “consumer in control” has been most disruptive in the ways television programming is being consumed. Mobile devices have disrupted that landscape and Aereo, a little company, has lit the fire that may burn the old business models to the ground.
It’s going to be an exciting year, one that books will written about. Maybe it’s time I write another book?