Broadcast networks make many of their shows available on the Internet, but you usually have to wait at least a day after an episode airs on television. A subscription service called Aereo breaks those shackles and makes network programs available right away.
That sounds too good to be true, and in a sense it is. First, it works only in New York City for now, though Aereo said Tuesday that it will expand to 22 more U.S. regions this spring. Its channel selection is limited to 29 over-the-air channels and Bloomberg TV. It doesn't include the other cable networks I frequently watch.
The biggest caveat is the fact that broadcast networks are suing to shut it down. More on that later.
Aereo is no fly-by-night pirate operation. The startup is backed by big money and a big name — media billionaire Barry Diller. Aereo believes what it is doing is legal. It has created tiny antennas, each the size of a dime. The company stuffs thousands of them into small boxes at its data center in Brooklyn.
When you're ready to watch a show, you are assigned one of those antennas, as if you had your own antenna on your roof. You get a second one, too, if you want to record something to watch later. You can also record both shows for later. Shows you watch live or record for later viewing are streamed over the Internet to a Web browser.
A day pass costs $1 and gives you 10 days to watch up to three hours of recorded shows. You can pay $8 a month for unlimited live viewing and 20 hours of storage, or $12 for 40 hours. Or you can pay $80 for a full year and 40 hours.
That annual price is less than what I pay my cable company for TV each and every month. It's a great deal for people who mostly watch broadcast television and not a lot of sports. (Regular-season games are typically on cable channels these days.)
I've been trying out Aereo since September to record and watch all sorts of programs on Aereo — both highbrow shows such as "Downton Abbey" and guilty-pleasure ones such as "Revenge."
Service is now available on Mac and Windows computers, iPhones, iPads, Apple TV and Roku's set-top box. The company says access on Android devices should come this year. You can watch on up to five devices, meaning you can start watching on your desktop at home and continue where you left off on an iPhone while waiting for the bus. Two people can watch different shows at once, but not the same show on different devices.
To get started, simply flip through an interactive program guide, similar to the kind you'd see on TiVo or a digital video recorder from your cable or satellite TV company. You can also search for specific shows or keywords. Typing in "Giants" pulled up shows on the football team and giant animals.
Once you come across a show you're interested in, simply choose "Watch" or "Record." Watching "live" is actually delayed by several seconds because of the time it takes to convert signals into Internet data and send to you, so don't make any impromptu sports bets. If you choose to record a show, you can do it for just that one episode, for new episodes only or for everything including reruns. Keep in mind that "everything" means everything. I managed to record some PBS shows multiple times — filling up my 40-hour allotment — because of repeats overnight.
To watch a recorded show, simply choose it from a list. Like most video players, Aereo lets you jump to any portion of a show, so you can watch just the ending or go back a third of the way in. Depending on whether you watch in a small window or the full screen, you can replay the past 10 or 30 seconds or jump 30 seconds ahead — perfect to skip over one commercial.
Aereo isn't an on-demand service. So if you hadn't recorded a show, you can't go back to watch it. That's where Hulu comes in. It typically offers the past five episodes of shows from NBC, ABC, Fox and the CW. Where Aereo is particularly useful is in filling the gaps — CBS and PBS, plus local programs such as the news.
Aereo also lets you start watching even before a show ends, just like a regular DVR. Most shows on Hulu aren't available until the next day, and those on Fox take more than a week unless you pay for a subscription. You get the same commercials that are shown over the air, and you can skip them. Hulu has different ads, which you can't skip. Shows are available on Aereo until you delete them or run out of space, while Hulu drops the oldest episodes as new ones appear.
As I mentioned earlier, Aereo is available only in New York City, not even the suburbs, until this spring's expansion. That restriction extends to watching shows while traveling, even if you're a legitimate New York subscriber. Aereo performs a check of your location when you log on, using your numeric Internet Protocol address and other tools. Mistakes happen — the service thinks my office is outside New York because my employer's network is based elsewhere. But it's easy to bypass that and use the service anyway, after reading a warning that use outside New York City is a terms of service violation.
There are a few other limitations:
— The program guide looks forward two weeks or less, so you can't record shows beyond that, even if you know their names. I missed several shows during the fall television season because they started later than others and hadn't appeared yet when I got around to setting up the recordings. With TiVo, I can simply type in a keyword, and shows will automatically record, even a year later.
— Aereo won't let me remove specific episodes from the list of future shows to record. I'd have to drop the entire series, or quickly delete them after recording to avoid running out of space.
— A handful of shows didn't record because of unspecified recording errors. A few "90210" episodes got mysteriously chopped off. I've encountered fewer glitches since I started using Aereo, but keep in mind it's still infant.
— The interface is intuitive when it works, but early on, I had to refresh the browser often because the website would freeze. I've also managed to hit the wrong part of the screen too many times. On Election Night, I was inadvertently watching news broadcasts on a half-hour delay and learned of President Barack Obama's victory on Facebook because key states were still too close to call on my delayed broadcast.
— Video quality depends partly on the Internet connection. Video can look good on a large, high-definition TV set, but at times, it stutters on my small laptop, particularly over a wireless network. I don't get the same stuttering with Hulu. During Superstorm Sandy, service went down completely for about four hours because of problems with one of Aereo's Internet providers.
I could see Aereo being useful for live broadcasts you can't get on Hulu, but during the storm, I had to go back to cable for around-the-clock news. There were pockets of cable outages in the region, but no service-wide disruption.
Aereo isn't ready yet to replace your cable TV service if you need reliability. I've noticed the service get better over the few months I've used it, but there are still kinks to work out. But it's a good option if you care more about saving money.
It's a good supplement to Hulu for its access to CBS, PBS and live shows and quicker availability of shows from ABC, Fox, NBC and the CW. But the restriction on watching shows outside your home area limits its usefulness. I had to turn to Hulu on a laptop to catch up on shows during my various travels.
One unknown is how long Aereo will last.
Copyright-infringement lawsuits filed by the major networks and others accuse Aereo of unlawfully copying and retransmitting their programming over the Internet. Aereo insists what it's doing is legal because customers are assigned individual antennas. Therefore, the company says, it's similar to what viewers would get for free by installing the same equipment at home. By contrast, cable TV companies use a single antenna or direct feed from a broadcaster to pick up a station for thousands of subscribers.
In July, a federal judge in New York refused to give broadcasters a preliminary injunction to stop the service, though the ruling has been appealed.
So if you can live with service hiccups, enjoy Aereo while you can. It makes cutting cable service tempting. But don't tell off the cable guy quite yet. You might have to come crawling back if broadcasters win their lawsuit.
Anick Jesdanun, deputy technology editor for The Associated Press, can be reached at njesdanun(at)ap.org.
Aereo offers over-the-air channels and Bloomberg TV over the Internet for $1 a day, $8 or $12 a month or $80 a year. There's also a try-for-free option, limited to a single hour per day.
Aereo lets you watch shows live or record them on an Internet-based digital video recorder for steaming later. It works on most computers and devices, with Android phones and tablet computers the main exception (Android support is expected this year).
Service is now limited to New York City, though it will expand to the suburbs and 22 other U.S. markets this spring. They are Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Birmingham, Ala., Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Madison, Wis., Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, R.I., Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Salt Lake City, Tampa, Fla., and Washington. Service will extend to those cities' suburbs, based on market regions used by the Federal Communications Commission and Nielsen Media Research.