In July 2019, an effort driven by the nation’s four major broadcast television networks — with the endorsement of the NAB — was launched in a New York Federal District Court to decide whether or not an entity that considers itself to be “a nonprofit streaming service serving viewers unable to tune to their local off-air TV channels” should be shut down.
Two months later, the service — Locast — countersued.
Now, Locast is drawing attention for pushing ahead with the streaming of local broadcast TV channels in a market of vital importance to the 2020 presidential election campaign.
As of Monday (1/27), residents of Sioux City, Iowa can now watch, at no cost, 20 local broadcast TV channels via Locast.
But, it is unclear if Locast is paying any retransmission fees for the right to bring the market’s stations to viewers in an IPTV format.
Sioux City’s TV stations include Waitt-owned and Sinclair Broadcast Group-managed KMEG-14, the CBS affiliate; Sinclair’s Fox/MyNetworkTV dual affiliate KPTH-44; Quincy Media‘s NBC-affiliated KTIV-4; and Nexstar Media Group‘s ABC-affiliated KCAU-9. Also on the Locast lineup is the local PBS member station, KUSD, and all multicast channels available via a broadcast antenna.
The launch of Locast in Sioux City takes place ahead of the nation’s first Presidential caucuses in Iowa, on Feb. 3, and — Locast notes — “as rate increases start to roll out for tens of millions of cable and satellite TV customers nationwide.”
Locast argues that it is offering a service at no cost to those in Sioux City who have been “unable to receive their free local TV channels over-the-air due to terrain or buildings blocking their signals.”
Then, there are disenfranchised residents who ” simply can’t afford to pay the rising rates charged by cable and satellite TV providers to receive their free over-the-air local channels.”
Further, some consumers wish to watch their local channels on their mobile devices away from their home — a promise that NEXTGEN TV advocates have said will be possible.
Today, Locast “solves these problems” by allowing for mobile viewing with the Sioux City DMA via an app it has developed.
That may irk Nexstar, Sinclair and Quincy Media, rather than result in applause for the increased viewing associated with Locast’s efforts.
Still, Locast founder David Goodfriend asserts, “As a nonprofit, we’re using the power of the internet to ensure Sioux City viewers have full access to their publicly available local TV channels for free, a feat that has proved challenging for local broadcasters.”
In fact, Goodfriend believes Locast’s mission “is similar to the thousands of local translator stations that boost over-the-air TV signals to hard-to-reach areas.”
Whether that’s credible or not may not matter in the coming months, if Locast’s plans come to fruition. “With the support of donations from viewers, we hope to expand into more cities soon,” Goodfriend says. “This is especially essential given Iowa’s importance in the 2020 presidential primaries and general election.”
Locast now provides a public service in 17 U.S. cities, reaching more than 41 million viewers. Locast markets are comprised of New York; Philadelphia; Boston; Baltimore; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Houston; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Rapid City and Sioux Falls, S. Dakota; and Washington, D.C.
While it is free, Locast asks viewers to donate “as little as $5 per month” to help cover operating costs. “Donation requests and user contribution rates for Locast are similar to those requested by public TV and radio,” Goodfriend notes.
But, there’s a big difference: While one can donate to an NPR member station, they don’t have the right to rebroadcast the local ABC affiliate on a digital multicast signal on the grounds that it is helping that station reach audiences it couldn’t get to otherwise.
Goodfriend and Sports Fans Coalition NY are the parent of Locast, which describes itself as “a non-profit digital translator service streaming local broadcast TV over the Internet in select cities for free as it was always intended to be.”
Locast believes it operates under the Copyright Act of 1976, which allows nonprofit translator services to rebroadcast local stations without receiving a copyright license from the broadcaster.
The networks note that Locast’s attempts to equate itself to a booster or translator station should be tossed by the courts.
“Locast is not a public service devoted to viewers whose reception is affected by tall buildings,” the networks’ lawsuit, filed by Gerson Zweifach of Williams & Connolly, states. “Locast is not the Robin Hood of television; instead, Locast’s founding, funding, and operations reveal its decidedly commercial purposes. Unlike legitimate booster and translator stations, Locast does not have the permission of the broadcast stations it retransmits, in New York or anywhere else.”
Thus far, litigation has not crippled Locast to the extent that it did to the now-defunct Aereo, a New York-based tech company that offered a service in which the user could view live and time-shifted streams of over-the-air television on internet-connected devices.
Backed by Barry Diller‘s IAC, Aereo debuted in March 2012. On June 28, 2014, Aereo suspended its services, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling made three days earlier that found Aereo infringed upon the rights of the copyholders — broadcast networks that are now suing Locast.
This hangs heavy over Locast and David Goodfriend, who founded it thanks to, the networks assert, “a sizable loan from a company founded by another former DISH executive.”
To make matters worse, Zweifach claims on behalf of the networks, AT&T recently disclosed a donation of $500,000 to Locast. AT&T is the owner of DirecTV, the just-renamed AT&T NOW vMVPD service, and U-Verse.
To avoid obtaining retransmission consent agreements from local broadcasters, Zweifach suggests, DISH is promoting a version of its Sling TV internet television service that does not carry local broadcast channels by telling potential customers that they can “supplement” Sling TV by getting the broadcast channels via Locast.
Because of this, the networks argue, “Locast is not the noncommercial, community public service it purports to be. It is a strategic play funded by and functioning for the benefit of decidedly commercial interests.”
The NAB agrees.
It is now up to the court to decide if it does, too, as Locast moves forward, business as usual, in Iowa.