Locast, a Free App Streaming Network TV, Would Love to Get Sued
Want to watch the Super Bowl and other network TV for free? A start-up called Locast will let you, and (so far) the big broadcasters aren’t trying to stop it.
By Edmund Lee
Jan 31 2018
On the roof of a luxury building at the edge of Central Park, 585 feet above the concrete, a lawyer named David Goodfriend has attached a modest four-foot antenna that is a threat to the entire TV-industrial complex.
The device is there to soak up TV signals coursing through the air — content from NBC, ABC, Fox, PBS and CBS, including megahits like “This Is Us” and this Sunday’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIII. Once plucked from the ether, the content is piped through the internet and assembled into an app called Locast. It’s a streaming service, and it makes all of this network programming available to subscribers in ways that are more convenient than relying on a home antenna: It’s viewable on almost any device, at any time, in pristine quality that doesn’t cut in and out. It’s also completely free.
If this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of Aereo, the Barry Diller-backed start-up that in 2012 threatened to upend the media industry by capturing over-the-air TV signals and streaming the content to subscribers for a fee — while not paying broadcasters a dime. NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox banded together and sued, eventually convincing the Supreme Court that Aereo had violated copyright law. The clear implication for many: If you mess with the broadcasters, you’ll file for bankruptcy and cost your investors more than $100 million.
Mr. Goodfriend took a different lesson. A former media executive with stints at the Federal Communications Commission and in the Clinton administration, he wondered if an Aereo-like offering that was structured as a noncommercial entity would remain within the law. Last January, he started Locast in New York. The service now has about 60,000 users in Houston, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas and Denver as well as New York, and will soon add more in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Goodfriend, 50, said he hoped to cover the entire nation as quickly as possible. “I’m not stopping,” he said. “I can’t now.”
The comment is basically a dare to the networks to take legal action against him. By giving away TV, Mr. Goodfriend is undercutting the licensing fees that major broadcasters charge the cable and satellite companies — a sum that will exceed $10 billion this year, according to the research firm Kagan S&P Global Market Intelligence. For cable customers, the traditional network channels typically add about $12 to a monthly bill.
With consumers increasingly willing to piece together their own bespoke packages of content — paying a few bucks to Netflix here, a few to HBO there — anything that encourages people to cut their cable cords is a challenge to the cable TV empire. That calculus makes tiny Locast, whose modest website (“Help us free your TV!”) asks for donations starting at $5, perhaps the most audacious media experiment in years.
Locast has about 60,000 users in seven cities, with hopes of eventually expanding nationwide.Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
‘Do you know you’re supposed to get television for free?’
With a shaved head and a short mustache, Mr. Goodfriend looks much younger than his age, and he speaks with the enthusiasm and the cadence of an earnest law student.
“We really did our homework,” he said. “We are operating under parameters that are designed to be compliant within the law.”
The copyright code has an exemption for nonprofits. Mr. Goodfriend, who does not draw a salary, said he has collected $10,000 in donations so far, mostly in $5 increments. He took out a high-interest loan, at around 15 percent, to fund the operation, which to date has cost more than $700,000.
Mr. Goodfriend is not a rich tech entrepreneur or a wealthy heir — just a lawyer who has made a decent living. Locast could still meet the fate of Aereo and be sued into financial oblivion by the networks. So why is he doing this?
The answer is partly principle, and partly intellectual mischief: With his public-private background, he has spotted an imbalance in the media ecosystem, he said, and decided to give the whole thing a shake.
“I ask people all the time, ‘Do you know you’re supposed to get television for free?’” Mr. Goodfriend said during an interview in Central Park, gesturing to a gaggle of visitors. “Most people under 50 don’t get it.”
Although his practice is in Washington, where he also teaches law at Georgetown and lectures at George Washington University, Mr. Goodfriend had come to New York to inspect the installation of the antenna, on the Trump International Hotel and Tower.
(This is another area where Locast has to operate carefully: The organization must install signal equipment in every city where it operates, because all broadcast stations are regional and retransmissions can be made only to local residents. If you live in, say, Miami, you can’t get Locast until Mr. Goodfriend puts up an antenna there.)