Why Aereo's still a valuable company

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I found a news release from Aereo in my inbox, calling my attention to the message it’s sending to all subscribers. As predicted, it’s suspending service. But surprise: It’s expressing optimism that it’ll be back. “We want to emphasize that this is a pause, and that the company is not shutting down,” the email adds. “Aereo is consulting with the court and mapping out next steps.”

It’s also set up ProtectMyAntenna.org, to amplify its position: The role of the service isn’t to monetize copyrighted programming without paying any licensing fees, but to allow consumers to exercise their existing rights to broadcast signals in a new way.

The majority Supreme Court opinion against Aereo bent over backward to stress that this ruling shouldn’t be used to deny consumers the ability to stream any content that they own. But doesn’t it? I thought these statements skipped over the idea that the public does indeed “own” the airwaves and that we have the right to record the radio and TV signals that cross it. Jeez, in the past, the government has supported this idea so strongly that my digital cable box has a secret connector that allows me to capture digital video from it with my Mac. It’s there because the FCC insisted on it. Otherwise, consumers would have lost their ability to record and keep the shows they like.

(Before you ask for a how-to: You need a free piece of software and a $25 adapter cable. I’ll write about it soon, I promise.)

I can’t talk about Aereo’s practical legal options at this point because I’ve already bumped my head on the ceiling of my legal knowledge and I don’t know anyone with this kind of specific expertise. But Aereo’s still a valuable company. You don’t even need to think of Aereo in terms of mere potential. Look at what it’s actually proven over the past couple of years:

  • It knows how to build and deploy streaming video apps across the Web and mobile platforms.
  • It can stream HD on demand to a massive number of users. It’s nothing like what Netflix or Hulu handles, o’course. But it’s shown that it can preserve a good experience for all users.
  • It can develop the new hardware necessary to support a product.
  • It can build physical infrastructure, and they know how to navigate local governments.
  • Its legal team is battle-hardened … like the 1975 Philadelphia Flyers, but with better teeth.

I think about Aereo right now and I imagine one of Prohibition’s biggest bootleggers getting out of jail after serving two years of a nine-year sentence. I see a big group of smart businessmen lined up at the front gates, eager to talk to him. The government won’t let him go back to his old line of work, but even without the tommy gun, the man still has a terrific set of skills!

Here’s a guy who can design and assemble a network of trucks, drivers and warehouses. He can solve complicated routing and logistical problems to ensure that shipments arrive safely and on time, and work around last-minute roadblocks. He’s an ace at sourcing raw materials for his product. He has the agility to switch to cultivate new suppliers to maintain profitability and he can keep the supply pipeline moving when his old ones become unreliable (or shot full of lead).

He’d make a great chief operations officer for any manufacturing company. He’s also the guy who can help grow a small store into an interstate powerhouse that can deliver to any customer in the Northeast with a phone and a street address.

Aereo has to be an intriguing opportunity for television broadcasters. Phones and tablets are edging out HDTVs as consumer’s viewing device of choice. Broadcasters can reach those screens either by building a company like Aereo, or by partnering with one. Plus, the gaping hole in even the most ambitious consumer who wishes to cut cable is “local programming.” I loved Aereo partly because it was the only way to get Boston-area sports and news programs on my streaming media devices. Actually, it was the only way to get back all of the broadcast channels I lost during the digital changeover due to poor reception.

I know that turning the lights back on at Aereo isn’t as simple as CBS buying the company and then licensing the service to its affiliates. Even if CBS Aereo were only available on the 16 stations the company owns outright, WBZ in Boston (an Aereo city) doesn’t have the rights to stream all of the content that they broadcast. Not even shows produced by the network itself, necessarily.

But any company that can run rum as well as Aereo did during its two years of operation is going to be of use to somebody. If not the service, then its technology and software. The letter that Aereo posted to consumers Saturday uses one of its signature microantennas as a whimsical paper clip. It’d be a shame if that’s all that becomes of the hardware currently in nine cities today, installed, waiting and now inactive.

I also wish to say that I’m now picturing Tim Cook as a nefarious Roaring ’20s bootlegger. If I had a lot more experience with Final Cut X, I’d be replacing Steve Buscemi’s face with Tim’s in the “Boardwalk Empire” opening credits right now, just to see how that looks.

After Aereo, what’s next for Internet TV?

Ihnatko: The Supreme Court’s Aereo decision won’t stop the future

Lori Rackl: New online service another disruption for cable TV

Aereo violates broadcasters’ copyrights: Supreme Court

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