Stations need to begin streaming their live signals, and to offer streams of past programs, before the future passes them by. The first steps are to fashion a business model and secure the necessary rights from broadcast networks. It's in the networks' interest to extend those rights to affiliates, which are still the strongest distribution platform around.
Stations Need To Stream Their Signals Now
Streaming video is a big part of today’s television experience and it will only get bigger. It concerns me to see the streaming phenomenon grow without the full participation of TV stations. To be blunt, I worry that local stations could miss out on the future of television.
The broadcast networks have jumped on the streaming bandwagon with their own “.com” sites and through deals with Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and others. That is great, but what about their traditional station partners? Some networks, like ABC, allow local stations to sell some of the ads in network streams to viewers in the station’s local market. And some stations stream their local news. Unfortunately, these laudable, but fragmented, streaming initiatives are not the same as streaming the station’s entire signal.
Stations need to begin streaming their live signals, and to offer streams of past programs, before the future passes them by. The question is how to fashion a business model and how to secure the necessary rights.
Let’s start with how not to get there. Some advocates for stations have tried to make two particularly unpersuasive legal arguments.
First they argue that historical affiliation agreements between networks and stations already confer streaming rights on the affiliates. But, the basic grant of “first call” program rights in most of these agreements dates back to a time when the only “streams” around were those with trout in them.
The second ill-considered argument is that the cable compulsory copyright license somehow confers on affiliates the right to stream all the programs on their schedule. The Copyright Office has soundly rejected this argument. In my opinion, the time spent on arguments like these is time wasted as streaming becomes entrenched everywhere except on TV stations.
My suggestion is that instead of advancing strained legal arguments, stations should develop credible streaming business models and then engage in good-faith negotiations with their program suppliers, including the networks, to secure the necessary rights. Geo-location technology, like Syncbak, is available to appropriately limit a local station’s streams to its DMA. But stations first need to negotiate for the rights. And, the sooner the better.
If I were running a station, I would negotiate for exclusive live streaming rights for all of my programming. Then viewers in my market (including those who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite) could watch my station live on their iPads, Android tablets, smart phones and other devices, without needing to fight for the inclusion of VSB receivers in these devices, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
In addition to exclusive live streaming rights, I would negotiate for non-exclusive streaming rights in the programs on my schedule subsequent to their live broadcasts. It is perfectly fine that the networks offer after-broadcast streams on their own “.com” sites and authorize Hulu, Amazon and others to do the same. But stations with credible business models should be able to offer consumers the same after-broadcast streaming opportunity on a non-exclusive basis.
If I were running a network, I would want my affiliates to participate in the streaming revolution. Stations are the strongest distribution platform in television — by a wide margin. Assuming that stations can develop streaming business models that generate revenue for their networks, it would serve the best interests of the networks to keep this great partnership going into the streaming future.
Unless I am missing something, there is the potential for a real “win-win-win” here for stations, networks and viewers. Unfortunately, there is also the potential for stations to miss out on the streaming future of television. That would be a crying shame.
Preston Padden is an adjunct professor of law at the University Of Colorado and a senior fellow at CU’s Silicon Flatirons Center. Previously he was an executive with Metromedia, Fox, ABC and Disney.