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How broadcasters could have stopped Dish’s Hopper

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Like a long-ago military invasion that didn’t infiltrate far enough to root out a hostile regime, broadcasters are reviewing their decade-old litigation with digital video recorder pioneer ReplayTV with some regret.

If only they had gone all the way with that case …

The rumination stems from a new commercial-deleting feature called “Auto Hop” introduced last week by Dish Network (s DISH) for its Hopper DVRs. The feature essentially strips out commercial pods for shows recorded on the major broadcast TV networks.

Once again, broadcasters are facing a DVR function that undermines their ad-supported business model. And once again, they seem poised to litigate over it.

”I think this is an attack on our eco system,” NBC (s CMCSA) Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert said during a Monday conference call held in conjunction with NBC’s upfront presentation to advertisers. “I’m not for it.”

Also read: Forget Mad Men, does Dish hate all advertising?

With subscriber growth for satellite TV services stagnating, Dish undoubtedly sees such a consumer-friendly feature as a way to differentiate itself and expand on its current count of 14 million U.S. customers. Neither Dish’s chief satellite competitor, DirecTV,(s DTV) or any rival cable or telco pay TV operator has been bold — or disrespectful enough — to undermine programmers in this way.

“Auto Hop adds to an already long list of broadcast-unfriendly features of Dish’s service, including 30 second skip buttons on their remote controls (other DVR services, including DirecTV and TiVo, have ‘locked’ this feature out of sight; Dish boldly promotes it on a button on the remote),” wrote Sanford Bernstein senior analyst Craig Moffett last week.

Should broadcasters seek legal remedies to stop Dish, they will have to battle a determined adversary, led by chairman Charlie Ergen, who’s no stranger to protracted, nasty media litigation.

But as the Hollywood Reporter noted, it didn’t have to be this way. In 2001, the networks sued ReplayTV parent company Sonicblue over a DVR feature that let users fast-forward through commercials with a press of a button.

Sonicblue filed for bankruptcy in 2003, before a federal court could decide the case, and the general perception was that the networks managed to sue ReplayTV out of existence. With ReplayTV vanquished, broadcasters never followed through on their quest for a ruling that commercial-skipping DVRs indeed undermine economic underpinnings of — and thus violate — copyrighted material.

In the interim, legal precedent unfavorable to broadcasters was established, such a 2009 federal appeals court ruling that Cablevision did not violate the copyrights of network shows when it offered its subscribers a remote-storage DVR.

Meanwhile, Dish promises to be a tougher adversary than Sonicblue.

Dish’s ongoing court battle with AMC Networks over defunct HD programming service Voom HD is just once example of its pugnaciousness. Earlier this month, a New York court ruled that Dish intentionally destroyed evidence in the four-year-old, $2.5 billion case, which stemmed from the satellite company’s decision to drop carriage of the AMC channels back in 2008. The court upheld AMC’s case, which now appears set for trial.

Perhaps coincidentally — perhaps not — Dish revealed last week that it doesn’t intend to renew its carriage deal for AMC’s cable networks, which expires June 30, despite the fact that ratings are up big on the AMC flagship channel.

4 Responses to “How broadcasters could have stopped Dish’s Hopper”

  1. Joshua Ramsey

    I don’t understand why CBS, FOX, & NBC execs don’t want us to enjoy commercial-free TV. I’m a DISH employee – AutoHop is great because you can easily watch commercial-free TV. Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, is taking a stand for consumers by creating a petition that tells CBS, FOX, & NBC media to keep their hands out of your living room & DVR. Sign their petition to keep control of how you watch TV

  2. Eddie

    The Dish Hooper with its “Auto Hop”, is awesome it takes your DVR experience to a whole new level. Most commercials are redundant and boring. Some commercials are funny and entertaining and get you to watch over and over. So this will only make advertisers work harder and smarter for our business. Nothing wrong with that. TechnoholicsInc.

  3. Derek

    My ReplayTV still works great. Even with widescreen programming, we just ‘zoom’ in the TV settings to have it fill up the widescreen TV. They got rid of the commercial skip feature, but there is a 15 second ‘hop forward’ button. Most commercial breaks take 8 hops, so we don’t see the commercials. No other DVR I’ve played with works quite this well. Too bad ReplayTV got sued down, and TIVO took over.

    Another thing – I’m PAYING the cable company for my content, so why do I still have any commercials??? If this were free OTA content I have no problem with the commercials.

  4. Wander1107

    The Auto Hop function doesn’t delete commercials it only skips over them. Also the function only works the day after. I already skip over commercials I don’t want to watch.