Aereo: Is it Worth the Money?

I cut the cord and left cable TV about five years ago. I had tested the over the air (OTA) channels and they came in well enough. Plus there was innovation going on that might mitigate not having cable. The other day my sister-in-law’s boyfriend mentioned that Aereo was going to start working on Chromcast. They have a micro-antenna array technology that allows them to get the local signals clearly and then allow their customers to watch the channels on computing devices. I’d been following them for a while and checked to see if they were finally in Baltimore. They were! So I signed up for the free month trial.

Aereo has been in the news a lot lately. They’re at the Supreme Court arguing why their service should be legal. Good luck to them. The reason I wanted to look at Aereo is that, while my OTA antenna works very well most of the time, there are times when it glitches out and that is so annoying. On top of that, Aereo provides DVR functionality. I didn’t want to setup MythTV because it’s more complicated in our house than it was in our apartment, so this was potentially a great service.

Aereo - Featured Content
Aereo – Featured Content

Signing into Aereo shows featured content – shows you might want to DVR so you don’t have to worry about appointment TV. I don’t know if they eventually learn your preferences, but if not, it’d definitely be an area worth expanding into.

Aereo - The Program Guide
Aereo – The Program Guide

If you want to watch live TV, you want to go to the program guide. This shows all the local channels and the programs currently on (as well as future programs). At this point you can either choose to watch it live or change your mind and choose to record it.

Aereo - Guide - selecting a show to watch
Aereo – Guide – selecting a show to watch

And if you watch it live, you get this screen:

Aereo - Watching Live TV
Aereo – Watching Live TV

Awesomely enough, you also get subtitles.

There are many benefits to using Aereo’s service. First of all, you can use the tablet/phone apps to watch TV anywhere in your house. Second, since they have Roku and Chromecast apps, you can watch it on TVs that aren’t connected to a computer (how we watch XBMC and Hulu on our TVs). Third, you have a DVR without the complications of needing to setup and maintain a DVR. It’s a pretty neat value proposition.

Is it work the money? Aereo is worth $8 a month; close to Netflix instant streaming’s price (I think Netflix recently announced a price hike) and close to Hulu Plus’ price. I wanted it to make sure I got my channels clearly, and I did get them very clearly. However, with an over the air antenna (precisely what Aereo is supposed to replace) I can get channels from Baltimore, Annapolis, and Washington DC. That last one is important since it’s only 20-30 minutes away so it’s nice to watch DC news to know what’s going on over there as well as weather. Aereo only provides me with the explicitly Baltimore channels. They come in pristinely, but I’d rather get 30 channels that come in most of the time, than 10 channels that come in all the time. So on channel clarity, I’d say that Aereo is a win if you live far from transmitters and/or in the first floor of an apartment. Digital signals need as unobstructed path as possible, so the higher the better. I know this has to do with following the letter of the law, but I should be able to get the same channels as I would with an antenna, regardless of the media market. So that’s a no from me.

What about couch potato viewing? One complaint I read about on the internet all the time is that regular TV (cable or OTA) is better than Neflix, et al because you just sit there and flip channels. I know I discovered many things, like Monty Python, by flipping channels and being intrigued by what I found. Also, there’s the paralysis of choice with Netflix et al where there’s so much you want to watch that you choose nothing and turn it off. I only rarely suffer from that – usually when I’m stress or depressed and find the idea of picking the wrong choice to be too stressful. 99% of the time I am not affected by paralysis of choice, but others may be moreso. The problem with Aereo (as currently implemented) is two-fold. First of all, you cannot easily flip channels. You’d need to go back to the channel guide and pick a program and pick to watch it. Not conducive to flipping around during commercials. Second, Aereo currently does not provide seamless viewing. Say you’re watching Friends and after Friends the Simpsons is aired on the same channel. When Friends ends, you need to go back out and pick the Simpsons to watch. So for me this is a wash. I really don’t care either way. For others, this could be a deal-breaker.

A potential missed opportunity, although they’re doing it so they can survive court battles like the current Supreme Court battle is that you cannot access your channels if you’re not home. I could see Aereo being awesome if you’re out of town and want to keep up with local stuff. But it’s ok, if you setup a VPN at home, it’d probably work. Not a knock against them, just a mention of how current copyright sucks.

Time for the biggest knock for me. It’s $8 for one antenna. That means you are either recording or watching live. If you want to be able to do both, it’s more money; $12 a month. They don’t mention watching live on two devices at once, but they mention recording two at once and recording while watching live. So I’ll assume this means for $12 you can watch two at once. On its face, pretty fair. All the antennas I’ve looked at for OTA say they can power two TVs. Without an amplifier, that is. With an amplifier they can usually do at least four TVs. Whether or not this is a dealbreaker depends on whether you live alone. Once you start getting more people involved, it quickly becomes a lot cheaper to just get basic cable, an OTA antenna, or satellite.  So, for me this makes it not worth it. Again, if you’re a solitary person or live with people who don’t watch TV, it is worth it. If you have the typical 4-5 person family, it probably will just lead to arguments.

Having your own DVR/PVR isn’t as convenient as having it in the cloud; especially if you roll your own via MythTV. But once you go through the headache of setup and maintenance, you can do whatever you want with the recordings. You can keep them forever. You can put them on any device. You can use them for mashups and other fair use things. I am pretty sure you can’t do that with the Aereo recordings. Yes, they have Android and iOS apps. But that doesn’t get to the fair use cases.

I shall close with my wife’s evaluation. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when it comes to the visual arts, my wife (and now my daughter as well) is the primary consumer. There are lots of TV shows and movies that I hear are are great. Most of the time I believe the tastemakers who tell me this. But I just can’t muster the interest. There are a few shows I enjoy – The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, The Colbert Report, Game of Thrones, and Archer. For the most part, however, I just can’t bring myself to spend 20-40 minutes on TV and 90-200 minutes on movies. I’d much rather read, play video games, or create. I prefer my entertainment to require more creativity: reading requires imaging the visuals; video games require input and my favorites have player-determined narratives or are puzzle-based; and creation – writing, coding, drawing, etc – is inherently creative. So when it comes to deciding whether to spend money on visual entertainment, I tend to delegate to the wife. And her response to the description of Aereo was: what does Aereo give me that Hulu doesn’t? The only answer I could think of was – the ability to watch inherently live TV like the news, the Grammys, the Oscars, etc. She told me she didn’t really give a crap about those things and she could usually find the highlights on Youtube and elsewhere the following day.

So, in summation, Aereo is not worth it FOR ME. It provides nothing I cannot already get for free or am not already paying for. Sure, it provides DVR, but that’s inherent in Hulu. And for those few times I want to watch something live, I can make do with the antenna and its intermittent dropouts. Is it worth it for you? Do you live alone? Do you lack good TV reception for OTA? Do you enjoy watching inherently live TV? Then YES, Aereo is worth it.

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