New Yorkers keep losing their local sports.
On behalf of our client, Sports Fans Coalition, we helped launch Locast.org, the first ever video streaming service providing local broadcast TV stations’ programming online. We did it in the largest media market in the nation, New York City. We succeeded where others had failed. And we did it on a shoestring, advancing new concepts of online video business, law and policy in the process.
As more and more Americans “cut the cord” and use online video in lieu of cable or satellite TV, the availability of local broadcast TV signals remains a missing link. Consumers can find online movies (Netflix) or TV shows (Hulu) but not their local broadcast TV signals online. Consumers can purchase network programming on media companys’ “apps,” or get local news from a local station’s website, but cannot find a single destination to get all of their local broadcast stations online. As a result, consumers either must spend way too much money for network programming behind a paywall, or forgo local broadcast and network programming altogether when cutting the cord.
Some tech startups tried to address this shortcoming in the onine video space, coming up with creative ways to present broadcasters’ content online. Invariably, however, they were sued—and beaten—by broadcast networks and other copyright holders who wanted to maintain a marketplace advantage, even if that meant losing a huge potential audience.
Enter Sports Fans Coalition and its new service, Locast.org.
Like many others in the media industry and legal community, our client, Sports Fans Coalition, was aware of a decades-old provision of the Copyright Act that permits non-profit organizations to retransmit a broadcast signal. 17 U.S.C. 111(a)(5). The provision never has been litigated, and since its inception in 1976 has enabled non-profit so-called “translator” stations to receive an over-the-air broadcast signal and retransmit it to the far reaches of a market so that everyone could have access to the broadcast programming. That, after all, was the original intent of broadcating-- free, local broadcast programming with local news, weather, and sports, available to the entire community. The translator station simply made that policy objective a reality. Sports Fans Coalition, a well established non-profit corporation, asked a simple question: why couldn’t a non-profit also retransmit a local broadcast signal online?
Despite years of people asking that same question, no one ever attempted to do it.
We got to work. We helped to form a New York local chapter of Sports Fans Coalition, helped to secure a line of credit and a technology vendor, and found copyright experts willing to help us navigate complex video copyright law to make sure that the new service met the letter and spirit of the law.
On January 11, 2018, Locast launched in New York City, offering fifteen local broadcast station signals online, in beautiful high definition video, with a useful programming guide, for free (voluntary finanaical contributions welcomed, of course). Publications like Bloomberg, Crain's New York, Forbes, SportTechie, and Metro NY wrote glowing reviews. With next to nothing spent on marketing or advertising, thousands of New Yorkers heard about and tried the new service. More and more use it every day.
After the serviced launched, we designed and implemented an effort to reach out to New York City public housing residents, informing them about the availability of low-cost Locast.org as a way to get local broadcast programming. For consumers who did not want to pay for expensive cable TV or satellite subscriptions, and who could not receive their local broadcast TV stations over the air, Locast.org presented a meaningful public service offering. The response has been very positive.
We produced a full-length online video, featuring actual New Yorkers talking about Locast.org, that explained the service to multiple audiences—from cord cutters and curiosity seekers to policymakers and journalists.
Despite predictions to the contrary, broadcasters did not call to complain, send a cease-and-desist letter, or file a lawsuit. In fact, their most common response to reporters’ questions was, “no comment.” It seems that our interpretation of the law and careful roll-out of the service has been tacitly acknowledged by the largest media companies in the U.S. to be valid.
We have a word for that: Victory.