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Cablers eyeing Aereo-like service?

Are DirecTV, Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable really ready to go all Aereo on broadcasters and set up their own tiny-antenna farms to to get out of paying retransmission fees, as suggested by this Bloomberg article from Friday? Doubtful, although I’m sure they fantasize about it.

Among the practical problems: the broadcast networks are not standalone entities. ABC, for instance, is owned by Disney, which also owns ESPN, which no MVPD could afford to do without. Fox owns Fox News, the highest rated cable news channel; NBC Universal owns CNBC, Bravo and USA. Going Aereo on the broadcast channels would put an MVPD’s access to must-have cable channels at risk. All News Corp. would need to do is to turn off Fox News for a day or two on Time Warner Cable systems before Bill O’Reilly’s legions of angry octogenarians would make the operator’s life miserable.

The Bloomberg story, in fact, reads rather like a plant by someone’s PR shop, most likely TWC, whose spokeswoman Maureen Huff gets the only on-the-record quote in the piece from any of the company’s purportedly considering the move (the piece also reports that TWC had considered acquiring Aereo outright). Chalk it up to an elaborate exercise in corporate chain-yanking than an actual threat to go Aereo.

Then again, the threats recounted in the piece from Fox, CBS and Univision to turn themselves into cable channels should Aereo ultimately prevail in court are equally inflated. As was apparent from the the outcome of TWC’s retransmission fight with CBS this summer, live sports — in particular the NFL —  is what gives the broadcasters most of the leverage they have to demand higher fees from MVPDs. It’s unlikely the NFL would be happy about becoming a cable-only show (the networks in fact just locked themselves into new NFL rights deals that run through 2022 and are premised on broadcast distribution). It would also likely mean giving up incredibly valuable broadcast spectrum while getting nothing in return.

Still, the amount of hot air being issued by both sides is a measure of the amount of heat Aereo is generating out of those tiny antennas in Brooklyn.