With the Supreme Court case between the video streaming service Aereo and the Big Four Networks looming, something is bound to happen. Aereo argues that because it records these programs from public airwaves, it can legally air them, while the Big Four (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) argue that because they are copyrighted material, Aereo can’t air them. If the case is ruled in favor of the Big Four, it might have the unintended consequence of making various cloud computing services illegal, while if it is ruled the other way, the Big Four have all said they would leave terrestrial broadcasting altogether and become cable-only channels.
Regardless of what the ruling ends up being, in 2014 I’m surprised that the Big Four are even still on terrestrial airwaves. I’ll be 30 next year, and as a kid I didn’t really see any difference between cable TV and over-the-air TV except that in the occasional instances where we didn’t have cable, my brothers and I couldn’t watch Nickelodeon and a then-premium Disney Channel. (This, of course, back when Saturday morning cartoons were still viable on the networks instead of FCC-mandated E/I programming today.) Today, outside of sports programming (more on that in a minute), I rarely watch TV save for Family Guy and various professional wrestling programs by WWE and Ring of Honor.
The networks moving to cable-only isn’t an empty threat. NBC could easily move its higher-rated shows (or the ones they have anyways) to USA Network, while Fox could split most of its programming up between FX and the recently-launched FXX. In Fox’s case, it would likely mean the end of American Idol–which isn’t the powerhouse it once was–since it’s one of two shows on the main network that clearly don’t fit the male-oriented FX Networks demographics, while the other one (Glee) already is ending its run in 2015 anyways.
For CBS and ABC, it would be the relaunch–or at least rebranding–of channels it already owns. CBS could completely rebrand TVGN–who has lost its identity within the last 15 years due to on-screen programming guides becoming ubiquitous–as CBS, and finally put the scrolling programming guide that it surprisingly still has to rest. ABC Family could simply rebrand as ABC, although The Walt Disney Company would likely have to negotiate an agreement with former ABC Family owner CBN to be allowed to drop the name “Family” as well as CBN’s other requirements for the network like airing The 700 Club (which Disney has been distancing itself from anyways) in order to rebrand it as ABC.
While each individual station would likely end up independent by default, it would have one benefit that the networks leaving broadcasting would have on those stations: local programming. After all, local programming requirements like public affairs programming have been around for as long as television itself. Radio thrived for decades on local programming after the networks migrated to television, and has only recently suffered due to satellite radio and podcasts.
The networks moving to cable full-time do face one major obstacle: sporting events. NFL broadcasting contracts require that games that air on cable such as ESPN’s long-running Monday Night Football air in the local markets of the teams involved on broadcast television. The NFL and MLB are in support of the networks publicly, although you would have to imagine that the NFL is trying to keep its fans happy while protecting its own interests at the same time. It’s possible that the NFL could go from having a national contract to having its teams negotiate deals with their local regional sports network like the other three Big Four sports leagues already do; many of those same networks already have agreements with their respective NFL teams to air preseason games and other programming such as coach’s shows. Ironically, the NFL is starting a new contract this season with the networks that runs through 2022.
In any case, the days of the networks being available over-the-air for free will soon be coming to an end. Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the networks, you can’t change the evolution of technology.