The weirdest thing about using Aereo — the fast-growing TV-anywhere service, available now in Boston, New York, Miami, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Detroit — is watching only over-the-air television.
Tune into Aereo and you’ll find that “General Hospital” shows Luke dying of polonium poisoning. TMZ’s TV show jabbers on about some white woman’s blackface Halloween costume. And up-dial in New York, at CUNY TV, big questions like “does free will exist?” are addressed in a charisma vacuum.
Aereo is a controversial service that allows you to watch regional over-the-air television shows (what our grandparents would have called “TV”), on your own time, from anywhere, on Windows PCs, Mac PCs, Linux PCs, Roku and iOS devices like iPhones and iPads.
Aereo is controversial because last year ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox alleged that by showing their programs, Aereo was infringing their copyrights. But in April, a federal court — upholding a lower court’s decision — said nah, nope, Aereo is legal. Showing something on your computer or tablet is not the same as hosting a “public performance” of it.
Aereo is a very useful service, and modestly priced at $8/month. It's not too expensive; it’s not foolishly designed; it’s not balky (although it’s special energy needs might mean it’ll bog down with more subscribers).
The only other real end-run around parking yourself in front of a TV screen to watch your city’s first 28 channels is Slingbox, a service that lets you “placeshift” your TV’s output to your computer or mobile device. And Aereo is better priced.
To make Slingbox work as well as Aereo, you’d have to buy a Slingbox for at least $180, acquire an old-fashioned antenna to get more programming to your set (or pay for cable or satellite) and purchase the $15 Slingbox apps that make the service work on a phone and tablet. In contrast, with Aereo, you pay your $8/month to rent a tiny antenna — housed and maintained offsite by Aereo — that beams over-the-air TV to your devices. With a few taps and clicks, you’re watching “General Hospital” smoothly on your phone.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Aereo boasts some 100,000 subscribers in New York City alone. The company hopes to expand to 20 more cities.
For new Aereo users — or this one, anyway — a good first stop on Aereo.com, where you can sign up for a one-month free trial, is the friends’ list. I live in New York City, have Facebook friends who like new technology, and signed in through Facebook, so I wasn’t surprised to find a robust list of pals using Aereo linked to Facebook (mostly men, mostly media-business men). My friends’ list gave me a sense of what the service is good for. If I had seen TV buffs on it (the ones who have seen every episode of “Game of Thrones” more than once), I might have expected a sumptuous viewing experience. Instead, I saw tech fans: early adopters who probably nabbed Aereo for the same reason they got Foursquare and Fitbit and Flipboard — just to have it.
Once you use Aereo, it’s extremely gratifying to know you don’t need traditional TV at all anymore. Aereo also serves as a DVR: it lets you record shows so they can be watched, with ads skipped over, later. So you’re timeshifting your TV viewing — and placeshifting it.
For those who dislike commercial TV, obsolete broadcast norms and pricey premium-cable subscriptions, the dependence on old TV — networks, cable, all of it — has been a source of chagrin. First DVDs and timeshifting with TiVo and DVRs replaced it, then YouTube helped, then streaming Netflix and Amazon and iTunes on Roku or Apple TV or PlayStation or Xbox made TV still less necessary. For the broadcast networks and local channels, Aereo seems to be the final nail in TV's coffin. I’d say the best thing you get for the $8/month is the confidence that you really can cut the TV cord without losing anything.
But what have those who are hesitant to cut the cable cord for good (and I’m one of them) been so afraid to lose? Not what Aereo gives you: broadcast TV.
I’ve been trying to tune in more, to get my Aereo money's worth, and while the picture and sound is fantastic — better than streaming, I’d venture — and the graphics and navigation harmonize nicely, I can’t for the life of me find anything to watch except for “The Good Wife” and “Parks and Recreation.”
On Aereo, there are “Dr. Phil" show scare stories about fraud and online “catfish” who bilk ladies out of fortunes by pretending to be handsome suitors. Also during the day, there’s a lot of shoutfests-with-bouncers, including “You Cheated with My Dad — Is He Our Baby’s Father?” (on “Maury” and elsewhere).
At night are the new serials (“The Michael J. Fox Show,” “The Crazy Ones,” etc.), which midway into the season still feel suitably green and nervous, and “Survivor,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Criminal Minds” and “CSI,” those network warhorses that aim for some central, mainstream mush in the brain and usually hit it.
The ads on these shows — which can be skipped with the DVR option, but hitting buttons at the right time is required and often flubbed — express the olden-days sensibility of the programming. As I watched “The Talk” one morning, using Aereo on my MacBook Air, an ad for a TV set came on. To finance the tricked-out set, the ad promised, I wouldn’t have to resort to “layaway.” I could take that bulky thing home and pay for it in increments while I enjoyed it.
Aereo users are probably not TVs-on-layaway types. Besides, I had covered the Aereo image up on my smallish screen with other open windows — for Twitter, Amazon, etc. — so I’m not sure how amazing that television set was.