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A Message to the Supreme Court: Over-the-Air TV Doesn’t Work

On April 22nd, 2014, a small technology company called Aereo goes head-to-head against the might of the major TV networks in the Supreme Court. If you’re not familiar, Aereo provides a service where you can rent a physical TV antenna, located in a remote area of your city. The antenna acts like any TV antenna should: it enables you to watch local broadcasts of over-the-air TV. The networks are suing Aereo because they consider this a retransmission of their content, which requires hefty licensing fees. My issue is that Aereo solves a fundamental problem that many Americans face: over-the-air digital TV simply doesn’t work.

Aereo’s upcoming Supreme Court case is plagued with disconnection. The networks are suing over the absence of licensing fees, but they’re not really threatened by Aereo’s little service. In fact, Aereo delivers viewers to the networks, and ultimately delivers more eyeballs to the paid advertisements. The main concern the networks have is that cable providers like Comcast and Verizon will co-opt technology similar to Aereo’s to provide network TV channels to cable subscribers, therefore bypassing the massive retransmission fees they currently need to pay.

The White House has publicly stated that they oppose services like Aereo, because they consider it to be a retransmission. But here’s where I think the disconnection lies with Washington: how many members of the Obama administration currently rely on antennas for entertainment? My guess would be none. They are seemingly oblivious to the fact that D-TV antennas rarely operate properly. The vast majority of people that I speak to these days have no idea how lousy television reception has become.

In the old days when there was only analog broadcasting, the rabbit ears on TV sets didn’t operate very effectively. The image would often suffer from static, or unwieldily vertical flickering. The audio would get fuzzy. It was a mess more often than it was perfect, but the thing is, even if your image got messed up and the audio was noisy, you could still deal with it. You could squint your eyes, you could prick up your ears, and you could still follow what was happening on the show you were watching. Very rarely did the reception get so bad that you needed to change the channel, or shut off the TV completely.

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When you’re watching broadcast television with a D-TV antenna today, there are essentially two kinds of reception quality you’ll encounter: crystal clear perfection, and intolerably terrible crap. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more likely that your reception will be bad when you’re using a D-TV antenna. Like the analog TV days, a lot of it has to do with luck. If your home just happens to be in the perfect geographical location to get clear reception, you win. The first apartment I lived in when D-TV transmission became mandatory, I was lucky, because everything worked really well. However, I’ve moved three times since then, and every other apartment I’ve lived in has had terrible reception.

Here’s the big problem I have with digital, over-the-air television: you can be watching a show, and everything is fine, but suddenly there will be a problem with the reception, and instead of getting a fuzzy image or static in the sound, the very first thing that happens is that the audio drops off completely. The TV goes mute. Right there, no matter what kind of TV show you were watching, you simply cannot follow along. You are disconnected. Remember, this is the very first thing that happens when your reception is slightly less than perfect.

I use an amplified antenna that I purchased because it had great reviews from users. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help. Enter Aereo. To my delight, an affordable, new service existed that could deliver the content that my antenna was supposed to handle. In New York City, Aereo was a big hit. The startup recently needed to turn away new customers, because there wasn’t enough antennas available.

When you think about a town like New York City, do you picture it being the kind of place where most people don’t get good TV reception, because they live too far away from the stations? No. You don’t. Why? Because the people live right on top of the TV stations. TV signals are broadcast from the tops of skyscrapers. New Yorkers are constantly bathing in busiest radio waves this side of Uranus, yet no one can watch TV.

Something is wrong here. Something fundamental is broken. Yet, the networks are poised to win a major court battle, so they can continue to receive paychecks for an unrelated circumstance. I just want to watch TV. Believe me, I wouldn’t be paying $8 a month for Aereo if it wasn’t completely necessary. I don’t like paying money for services that are supposed to be free. But, if those free services are plain-as-day broken and unusably bad, then yes, I will pay.

In my opinion, cable TV is far too expensive for what it is, and I’m simply not interested in becoming a cable TV subscriber. I have a hard enough time making ends meet without a big cable bill hitting my bank account every month. I simply want to watch some PBS, a couple of crappy network shows, and maybe some live events from time to time. That’s it. If I could pull this off with a D-TV antenna, I’d be happy. But I cannot. It’s impossible.

I want the members of the Supreme Court to understand what Aereo is: it’s simply an antenna that works. It’s a pleasant little service for the little people. When you make your ruling, prioritize the basic needs of your citizens over the financial interests of the corporations. If our D-TV antennas worked the way they’re supposed to in New York City, Aereo would have been a pathetic flop. D-TV antennas don’t work, and it isn’t a phenomena isolated to the Big Apple. Rule in favor of the people. Rule in favor of Aereo.

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Sam

Writer, musician, photo taker and video maker. When not writing somewhat longish articles for this blog, I write incredibly short things on Twitter: @SamMallery

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