When the case of American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo comes before the Supreme Court in April, it will feature two American archetypes in a battle that could upend the television industry.
In one corner will be broadcast networks like ABC, NBC and CBS, powerful companies that have been fixtures in American living rooms for decades, and the conduit for such collective national experiences as presidential elections, walks on the moon and the Super Bowl.
In the other corner is Chet Kanojia, a 43-year-old immigrant from India, who as an outsider saw a system that most took for granted and who knew he could build a better mousetrap, or at least a different one.
Aereo, Kanojia’s 2-year-old company, has figured out how to grab over-the-air television signals and stream them to subscribers on the Internet. It is an invention that could topple titans.
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The titans know it. Intent on maintaining a system that provides billions in revenue annually, the networks have been fighting Aereo in court almost since its inception, claiming the service was stealing their content. This month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Its decision will have far-reaching implications for a television industry already in upheaval, facing challenges from online streaming, Internet-enabled TVs, ad-skipping devices and, now, the tiny antennas that Aereo uses to capture broadcast signals.
The man at the center of this movement is Kanojia, a self-described “back bencher” in his youth, who spent too much time smoking and drinking and too little time studying in his hometown, Bhopal.
Now he has transformed himself into a long-distance runner and workaholic who sleeps four hours a night, pursuing what he describes as a simple ambition: improving the world through technology.
He says he is positive the Supreme Court will rule in his favor.
“I can’t imagine they won’t be on the side of innovation,” he says, “cloud-based innovation in particular because it is so consumer-friendly.”
Kanojia does not fit the profile of a poor immigrant boot-strapper. He grew up in an upper-middle-class household in Bhopal where his parents were so conscious of his future that they mostly spoke English instead of the native Urdu.
After earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in India, he came to the U.S. and earned a master’s in computer-systems engineering from Northeastern University.
He has integrated so seamlessly into life here that his American-born wife jokes, “You were never Indian.”
Yet he says that when it comes to embracing American values such as freedom of expression, he is perhaps “way more American than most Americans.”
His aspirations are idealistic and democratic, as well.
Aereo, he says, is not so much about making money — after all he made plenty after he sold his first company, Navic Systems, which made software that helped cable companies interact with their customers, to Microsoft in 2008 for a reported $250 million.
“This is the first battleground for the next 50 years of how copyright is going to extend or apply to the Internet and the cloud,” he said in a recent interview at Aereo’s cramped headquarters in New York.
The implication for consumers and for control of content has companies across Silicon Valley lining up to file amicus briefs for his side, he said.
Content companies have a decidedly different perspective, of course.
For a monthly subscription that starts at $8, Aereo allows subscribers to watch or record broadcast television through the Internet on any device, small or large, no wires or cable boxes required. It does this by assigning each consumer a remote antenna and a DVR.
To entertainment companies, this is cheating.
Copyright law lets individuals watch anything they pick up by antennas as long as it is for their private use, but the broadcasters say Aereo’s transmissions constitute a “public performance” that requires Aereo to pay for retransmitting them. Aereo, they claim, is violating copyright and stealing their content.
The networks’ concern goes beyond Aereo.
If the streaming service wins in court, networks fear that the cable and satellite companies that currently pay them huge retransmission fees might follow Aereo’s lead, a situation broadcasters say would destroy their bottom line.
Kanojia says that threat is overblown.
The big content providers will do just fine in the new world, he says; the casualties will be the hundreds of channels that are barely watched but which consumers still have to pay for in their bundle.
“When was the last time anyone watched VH1 Classic?” Kanojia asked. “I can’t even watch them on JetBlue. Yet they get paid a fee every month.”