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TV networks sue nonprofit to kill free TV service

The major broadcast networks today sued the makers of Locast, a nonprofit organization that provides free online access to broadcast TV stations. The lawsuit filed by ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC seeks financial damages and a permanent injunction that would shut Locast down.

Broadcast TV networks are available for free over the air with an antenna. But selling the rights to retransmit those signals in other ways is a big business. Broadcasters reportedly collected $10.1 billion in 2018 via retransmission fees they charge cable and satellite TV companies.

TV providers routinely pass this cost along to consumers in the form of “Broadcast TV” fees. Pay-TV providers use these fees to raise the actual cost of service above their advertised prices and to raise customers’ prices even while they’re under contract.

Pay-TV providers have also been refusing broadcasters’ demands to pay even higher fees, and broadcast channels have frequently been blacked out on cable and satellite TV systems as a result.

Use an antenna—or Locast

Locast says it is on a mission to help TV viewers get easier access to channels that are supposed to be free:

Ever since the dawn of TV broadcasting in the mid-20th Century, non-profit organizations have provided “translator” TV stations as a public service. Where a primary broadcaster cannot reach a receiver with a strong enough signal, the translator amplifies that signal with another transmitter, allowing consumers who otherwise could not get the over-the-air signal to receive important programming, including local news, weather and of course, sports. Locast.org provides the same public service, except instead of an over-the-air signal transmitter, we provide the local broadcast signal via online streaming.

So far, Locast is available in 13 US markets, namely Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Houston; Philadelphia; Rapid City, South Dakota; Los Angeles; New York City; San Francisco; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Washington, DC. Locast intends to expand to new markets but solicits donations because it says it has “considerable costs for equipment, bandwidth, and operational support.” Locast can be used on mobile devices, streaming boxes, and Web browsers; it detects your location and lets you choose from a selection of local TV channels.

Networks claim Locast isn’t really a nonprofit

Broadcasters fear that wider availability of free TV channels will make it harder to charge retransmission fees to cable and satellite companies. The networks filed their lawsuit in US District Court for the Southern District of New York against Sports Fans Coalition founder David Goodfriend and the New York chapter of his group, which created Locast. Goodfriend, an attorney and lobbyist, has been fighting TV blackouts for years on multiple fronts.

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