The nation’s major television broadcasters are collectively asking for the Supreme Court’s support in their quest to stop Aereo, a small Internet startup that threatens the underpinnings of the TV business.
In a filing Friday, the media companies petitioned the court to determine whether Aereo’s method of sending television signals to paying subscribers violates decades-old copyright law. Aereo says it does not, but the companies say it does; lower court rulings have mostly favored Aereo.
“Today’s filing underscores our resolve to see justice done,” one of the petitioners, Fox Television Stations, said Friday. “Make no mistake, Aereo is stealing our broadcast signal.”
Displaying a united front against the disruption that Aereo represents, the other petitioners included divisions of the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC; Comcast, which owns NBC and Telemundo; CBS, PBS and Univision. All of the companies own local television stations that transmit over the public airwaves.
The companies have previously pledged to do whatever they can to halt Aereo and services like it, so the petition to the Supreme Court did not come as a surprise. But the companies face long odds: the court grants about 1 percent of petitions filed.
Aereo declined to comment on the petition on Friday, other than to say, “We will respond, as appropriate, in due course.”
The dispute between the broadcasters and Aereo has the potential to affect every U.S. television viewer. That’s because Aereo exploits what some analysts have called a loophole in copyright law involving public performances. Aereo, which was started in New York City last year, picks up the signals of local television stations using arrays of antennas in each city it operates in. Then it streams the signals to the phones and tablets of subscribers who pay $8 a month. It also provides digital video recorder functionality to subscribers.
Because it assigns individual antennas to every viewer, Aereo says its Internet streams are not public performances. Thanks to the antennas, it has no reason to pay what are known as retransmission consent fees to local stations. Those fees, routinely paid by cable and satellite providers, are increasingly important to local stations and their network partners. The fees are so important, in fact, that some stations have said they'll consider taking their signals off the public airwaves if need be.
What the station owners fear more than Aereo is the possibility that cable and satellite providers, emboldened by Aereo, will set up their own antenna arrays to avoid paying retransmission fees.
In their petition, the broadcasters said that “certain cable and satellite companies” have threatened to use a lower-court ruling in favor of Aereo “as a road map for re-engineering their own delivery systems so they too can retransmit broadcast signals without obtaining the broadcasters’ permission.”
Some analysts suggested on Friday that the case was not yet ripe for Supreme Court review.
The broadcasters “feel they have somehow been uniquely violated,” said James McQuivey of Forrester Research. But “to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States, it helps if you have an important legal footing on which to stand - feeling really, really bad about something isn’t sufficient.”