“If Aereo ... can win, which we don’t think they can, we can go OTT,” he reportedly said, referring to “over-the-top” Internet television. “If the government wants to give them permission to steal our signal, we will find another way to get them our content and get paid for it.”
This isn't the first time a television executive has raised the possibility that a network could stop offering over-the-air programs if Aereo wins. Last April, News Corp's Chase Carey said the company might pull Fox from the airwaves and turn it into a cable-only service. “If we can’t have our rights properly protected through legal and governmental solutions, we will pursue business solutions,” he reportedly said at the National Association of Broadcasters conference.
But as a practical matter, the broadcast networks don't appear to be in any position to stop offering over-the-air television in the near future -- and certainly not by June, which is when the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether Aereo is legal.
In fact, one of broadcasters' biggest complaints about Aereo is that the startup beat them to the punch online. Consider, when Hearst (which owns the ABC affiliate WCVB in Boston) sued Aereo in Massachusetts, the broadcaster said it couldn't offer Web streams of all of its programs. “For broadcasters like WCVB, Internet streaming involves discussions, negotiations and agreements between and among various stakeholders” the company argued. Bill Fine, president and general manager of WCVB, added in court papers that the station can't stream network programs without first obtaining the content owner's permission. He argued that Aereo's launch in Boston would therefore “deprive WCVB of a significant first-mover advantage.”
Of course, even if the networks overcame all logistical barriers tomorrow, that doesn't mean that they would really decide to stop broadcasting free TV. After all, as many as 60 million Americans watch television via antennas, at least according to GfK. Some of those viewers might decide to watch television programs online, if they were no longer available over-the-air -- though whether they would pay to do so isn't known. But it's obvious that the networks would lose some significant portion of viewers by ending free broadcasts. And in a world where networks fight to attract an audience, it doesn't seem likely that they will be eager to lose viewers.