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Post-Locast: Why Can’t We Just Stream Local Channels?

Attempts to put local channels on stream have often met with resistance

Steve Anderson

The writing was likely on the wall for Locast from its inception. Founded after the forced shutdown of Aereo back in 2014, Locast sought to do something very similar. However, Locast went in having learned many of the lessons of Aereo, and built itself several protections designed to get around the issues that Aereo faced that led to its shutdown. These didn’t prove to be sufficient, however, now Locast has paused their service in the midst of a legal battle.

With another local channel streamer shut down, the question remains: why can’t we just stream local channels?

The biggest reason connects back to what ended up taking down both Locast and Aereo: copyright infringement. Both services found themselves up against the major networks, which used the court system like a bludgeon against them. Locast attempted to avert this potential outcome by filing for not-for-profit status immediately. Without a profit motive, copyright claims should have been much more difficult to pursue under the “fair use” statutes of copyright law. Judges disagreed, however, and Locast shut down.

There are other possibilities to consider here, however. First, local channels are commonly available for free anyway, via over-the-air antenna systems. Sure, some of these can be difficult to receive—just ask anyone who lives at least 40 miles from the transmitter—but most can to at least some degree.

While streaming would certainly improve reception for those who can access high-speed internet but not quality television signals, there likely aren’t that many who fall under that category. Elon Musk’s Starlink system may change that, as it’s already shown a lot of promise in delivering high-speed internet access virtually everywhere. Starlink’s wide availability is still quite some time off, though.

Second, consider that many networks are already offering streaming in some capacity. The major networks are offering streaming for their prime-time blocks. NBC has Peacock, CBS has Paramount+, and so on. Even local channels are running streaming to some degree, especially for their news operations.

Third, there is an issue of rights to consider. Local networks only have so much content that is truly their own to offer. Local networks are commonly supplied by larger networks; the prime-time block you might watch on WNBC in New York City isn’t WNBC’s programming; it’s NBC’s. The block of sports on Saturday afternoon? Same. The block of movies some channels might run in that competing time slot? Belongs to the network. A local network running streaming might be able to stream its news content, certain local programming blocks, and possibly some infomercials for local businesses. There’s precious little reason to stream that.

Unless the FCC mandates that local affiliates need to start streaming their channels, it’s unlikely we’ll see the investment necessary.

Networks do have some reasons for keeping out of the streaming circuit. There are likely other reasons that haven’t been disclosed, and the reasons presented come with at least some speculation. But the odds of seeing our favorite local channels online are fairly remote, though much of the content they provide will be available elsewhere.

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