The death of broadcast TV. And why it can’t come soon enough.

Broadcast TV is dying. It’s no secret.

While the median American age hovers at 37, the average broadcast TV viewer is 54 years old. The two largest cable providers in the United States, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, collectively lost 1.1 million subscribers in 2013 while on-demand streaming giant Netflix added more than 11 million subscribers in the same year. TV viewership is declining in general, with even some of today’s most popular new shows like Game of Thrones and True Blood garnering an average viewership of less than 10 million; when Lost, a long-time cable juggernaut, premiered in 2004, the pilot episode attracted almost 19 million viewers.

Broadcasters, the overlords of media like ABC and CBS, simply can’t survive in their current platform. For the last few decades, broadcasters have relied on rules and reform to stay afloat in a sea of changing attitudes and evolving technology. With the advent of cable and the Internet, broadcasters began fighting for government regulation to force cable companies and other TV services to pay fees without changing their business model. Today, TV is an expensive luxury for most American citizens, far removed from the days of free public broadcasting; the blame rests on the shoulders of the broadcasters and their outright rejection of change.

Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling that Aereo, a new and innovative streaming service, was operating illegally is yet another example of the protectionism and stubbornness that is killing broadcast TV. The ruling, though a major setback for consumers in the present, acts as evidence of the broadcasters’ inevitable downfall.

Aereo offers (or offered) an interesting take on streaming: they purchase and place HD antennas across major American cities that pick up free, over-the-air broadcast signals. Consumers rent the antennas and program them to pick up the signals from the channels they want. Shows can be recorded with a DVR and viewed on virtually any TV, smartphone, or tablet, all at a low monthly or daily rate.

The Supreme Court ruled that Aereo’s use of public broadcast signals qualifies as a “public performance,” or retransmission, of live television. The Copyright Act of 1976 states that broadcasters hold the exclusive right to publicly perform anything they have copyrights to; anyone else who wishes to publicly perform the same content is subject to retransmission fees from the broadcaster. Interestingly, this case bears similarities to the 2008 circuit court case Cartoon Network, LP v. CSC Holdings, Inc., in which the Second Circuit ruled that the copying and recording of network content per user request was in no way a violation of the Copyright Act and did not constitute a public performance – essentially the same grounds upon which Aereo was ruled against. The court’s decision is also a big one for cloud computing and streaming in general, since it treads on a huge legal grey area, but that is subject for another discussion.
Really, the ruling against Aereo not only proves that broadcasters can’t survive on ad revenue alone, but also that they are deathly afraid of companies like Aereo. The networks fear movers and shakers like Aereo, companies that challenge the status quo and actively work with the consumer to provide a better, cheaper product. They are afraid to innovate and evolve with their customers as minds and technologies shift, to potentially lose out on profits in order to better meet their customer’s wants and needs.

So broadcasters may rejoice for this victory today, but soon there will be no more opportunities to safeguard their business practice as they quickly become irrelevant. Streaming is growing at an unbelievable rate, and now, since the only major low-cost TV provider has been stamped out, consumers looking to “cut the cable” will turn to on-demand streaming and other streaming services like those provided by Netflix and Amazon. Broadcast TV must move and change with the current, lest it get washed away forever.

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