Two of the major broadcast networks are now threatening to remove their stations from the free airwaves if a little start-up called Aereo succeeds, with CBS joining Fox (and Univision*) in their pledges to go cable. But should anyone believe them? Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, told The New York Times's Brian Stelter he "wholeheartedly supported what Chase said," referring to Chase Carey, the Fox CEO who earlier this week said he would turn Fox into a cable channel if network signals kept getting unfairly sucked onto the web by Aereo, the Barry Diller startup that has gone from disrupter to a serious pain point for the television industry's old guard. Univision CEO Haim Saban made similar comments about his Spanish-language network at this week's National Association of Broadcasters meeting a very similar statement, which is turning into something of a referendum on the beginning of the end of free TV. Indeed, CBS has even had "exploratory talks" in the New York and Connecticut area, where Aereo currently operates, about removing its local stations from the airwaves for the first time since CBS ushered in the dawn of television at the end of World War II.
For now, the TV executives are offering mostly empty threats to scare away cord-cutters from services like Aereo. Fox talked about it as a last resort, and CBS is doing the same. "Frankly, we don't think it will get to that point," Moonves told Stelter. The networks are hoping that their legal efforts will put a stop to Aereo before it comes to the end of set-top bug ears becoming obsolete. So far, though, that strategy doesn't appear to be working, with a federal court of appeals throwing out the networks' request for an injunction on the service they say steals their airwaves. The networks have pledged to continue pursuing a legal solution.
But if that doesn't work, it's not clear if CBS, Fox, or even NBC and ABC — neither of which have joined this week's war on cord-cutting — could technically take themselves off broadcast TV. They would have to get the okay from certain content providers, with which they have made certain expensive and long-term deals. CBS's contract with the NFL, for example, centers on its making America's most popular sports available for free to America — and forcing local football games to expensive cable packages would almost surely lead to revolt and ridiculous renegotiations that would be a non-starter if not a boon to CBS's competition.
Then again, it doesn't look like Aereo is going anywhere anytime soon. The service has plans to exapnd to 22 more cities. And, fortunately for Aereo, not all the affiliate broadcast stations are right behind the broadcasters. "The real loser in all of this are those that can't afford pay TV," Bill Reyne, the chief executive of Mission TV, which operates two Fox affiliate TV stations in Rapid City, South Dakota, told NPR. "Everyone forgets that over-the-air television is free and it serves a very important function. If you go to a cable model, then all those people get disenfranchised and that would be very sad."
*This post originally stated NBC Universal owned Univision.