NOT SURPRISING: Broadcasters sue Locast

Several sources including Variety have filed suit against Locast. If you haven’t read this article, Locast is a nonprofit service that streams local TV to people in certain markets. It’s free and dependent on donations. AT&T recently poured a lot of money into Locast, and has integrated Locast into its receivers for people who are suffering channel blackouts.

Why this lawsuit? Why now?

AT&T and DISH are using Locast to help people deal with local channel blackouts. Many of us with DIRECTV have lost local CBS channels in the largest blackout of the year. Yet, most people don’t care because (a) it’s the summer and nothing’s on and (b) Locast is available in the largest of the affected areas.

Who does care? CBS, that’s who.

I have heard various confidential estimates of how much CBS’s ratings have dropped and it’s significant. Locast doesn’t count for Nielsen ratings in most cases and even if it does, it’s an extra step that people need to take. Many people are just watching something else.

What you see here is a huge advantage for AT&T as it attempts to negotiate for CBS. People haven’t “really” lost their CBS channels. They are there if they look hard enough. So AT&T subscribers aren’t as badly hit if they would be without Locast. Of course many people put up their own antenna from Solid Signal. That’s always going to be legal.

So of course CBS and other networks are going to sue Locast. Where before, Locast was helping them by increasing the exposure for their programming, Locast is now hurting them by taking away negotiating power. It’s a pretty transparent move.

Do they have a case?

Well I’ll say this, I can’t say. I can’t say because I’m not a lawyer and I can’t say because Solid Signal is an AT&T Preferred Dealer. What I can say is that it is perfectly legal for AT&T to give a donation to Locast and it’s perfectly legal for AT&T to put a Locast app on their devices with Locast’s permission.

What I can also say is that I think this is just another way for broadcasters to avoid the real truth here. Local TV ratings have plunged 90% in a generation and they’re not going back up. The law that lets broadcasters charge for carriage was a pretty sweet deal for them but they’ve abused it. In some cases broadcast carriage fees have gone up over 1000% while ratings continue to plunge. Why would any company, even AT&T, pay more for less?

I have said before, and I still say, that the real solution here is for broadcasters to realize what their programming is actually worth. This is just another way that they are avoiding the facts. Instead of trying to force you to watch more ads or suing free, helpful services, they should be trying to adapt to the fact that it’s not 1975. There are more than three things to watch at any given time. Figure out how to operate without needing to charge so much for retrans fees.

So what now?

As I write this, the Locast app is still active on DIRECTV hardware and can still be activated. I would expect that the broadcasters will seek a quick injunction that will shut Locast down at least temporarily. As long as Locast is functioning, CBS won’t be able to charge massive fees for coverage.

Locast is based in New York, which tends to be less friendly to broadcasters than California, where many other entertainment industry lawsuits are filed. I suspect that this will be a long and drawn out process and may end with the Supreme Court. If that’s the case, the CBS dispute will be long forgotten by the time it’s all solved.