Updated on December 10, 2021
Last Tuesday, a court delivered a devastating ruling against nonprofit streaming service Locast. Locast, for the unaware, was a service offered in a handful of US cities that allowed subscribers to watch live streaming of local over-the-air (OTA) TV stations and their digital subchannels. The service was free for users, but that came with a “nag screen” interrupting the stream 15 minutes in, asking for a $5/month donation. Those that donated saw the nag screen go away. Geoblocking software ensured that viewers in, say, Milwaukee couldn’t watch the local stations in Seattle, and vice-versa.
Launching in 2018, Locast grew to cover several dozen or so cities, covering over half of the country’s TV viewers. That said, the major commercial networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) didn’t like the service and sued, claiming copyright infringement. A judge apparently agreed, also claiming Locast using the donation fees to expand its service to other cities supposedly went against being a nonprofit. While Locast vowed to fight, they opted instead to shutter the service the next day. Subscribers received an email informing of the sudden shutdown, while app users got a popup message.
Why the Locast lawsuit
Why the backlash from broadcasters? Basically, local TV stations make much of their money these days not only from advertising, but also from collecting retransmission fees from cable companies (and cable-replacement streaming services like YouTube TV).
Given that, anything that cut into collecting said fees (which Locast didn’t pay, citing nonprofit exemptions in federal law) is seen as a threat. Never mind:
- The size of local TV station owners (Sinclair earned $2.73 billion in revenue in 2016).
- Most local stations already stream their news live online, suggesting they could easily offer a Locast-like service for free or cheaper than the alternatives.
- It doesn’t say much for local OTA TV’s business model or future if they’re (ironically) reliant on shaking down cable companies for cash. See: the constant high-profile carriage disputes between TV stations and cable/satellite companies.
- All of the broadcasters in question also own streaming services (and one, NBC, is owned by a cable company).
Why I liked Locast
I’d been using Locast for a year or so, and found it a nice alternative to the more expensive alternatives. I’d previously used Comcast’s over-the-air basic channels package, which was still expensive after various fees (including one for “HD broadcasting”… which is like charging for broadcasting in color). Thus, I’m not happy about Locast shutting down.
The alternatives are either expensive (cable or cable-replacement live streaming services) or involve fiddling with an antenna, which given digital broadcasting’s nature can be hit-or-miss. I don’t like messing with antennas, and given where I currently live (the Pacific Northwest), I can’t imagine TV reception around here being the strongest. I also notice Locast shut down just as football season is starting—the main time of the year OTA TV gets attention.
Still, I doubt this is going to send Locast’s former users stampeding back to cable, if that’s what broadcasters hoped. More likely, if they get lousy TV reception and aren’t fans of sports or award shows (OTA TV’s only real advantages at this point), it’s easier to just ignore local TV and stick with on-demand streaming. Most local TV outside network programming and news is generic time-filler: talk shows, judge shows, infomercials, and reruns of older TV shows. Almost all material one can get on streaming services, which also offer better viewing options.
Ways to watch over-the-air TV without cable
With Locast gone, there aren’t as many decent alternatives to watch over-the-air TV, but they do exist.
A TV antenna
A TV antenna’s an obvious option to try, I suppose. But again, TV reception is highly dependent on where one lives, the surrounding geography/buildings, and so on.
PBS and PBS Kids
PBS is the easiest broadcaster to replace, likely thanks to its noncommercial nature. Most PBS stations offer free live streaming of their main channel through the PBS app, as well as through the station’s website. Geoblocking ensures you’re limited to your local PBS station(s).
The PBS app only streams the main channel, rather than any digital subchannels the stations might offer. However, the stand-alone PBS Kids app and website also offer free live streaming of the PBS Kids network.
Other than sports and live events, local news is the other main reason for watching local TV at this point. Fortunately, most TV stations offer their newscasts streamed live for free. Options to watch these:
- Your local TV station’s website. Example: KING-TV in Seattle’s website, which also lists previous newscast clips to watch.
- Many stations offer their own stand-alone apps on devices like Roku.
- Similarly, there are some apps that offer multiple stations’ live newscasts within one app. NewsOn is a popular app (and website) that provides access to multiple TV stations’ live newscasts, as well as previous newscasts and clips. Users can also easily watch a newscast from outside their area—say, if someone in San Francisco wanted to watch the local news from Honolulu or New York.
While many sports leagues have fled to lucrative (and pricey) cable tiers, the NFL is still near-exclusively available to watch (“Monday Night Football” aside) on over-the-air TV.
The streaming alternatives (that aren’t cable replacement services) aren’t as good, but broadly:
- ABC’s network sports broadcasts are usually simulcast for free through ESPN3 (via most internet service providers), available within the ESPN app on streaming and mobile devices. This includes NBA/WNBA games aired on ABC, plus some soccer games. Adding on ESPN+ (at $7/month) also adds other sports (NHL hockey, MLS soccer, college football, etc.), though not the main ESPN channel itself.
- Paramount+ offers, at its $10/month tier, streaming of one’s local CBS affiliate/the CBS network, including all sports broadcasts.
- Yahoo Sports’ app for smartphones and tablets carry all NFL games, both local ones and nationally broadcast ones, live for free. I’ve yet to try it myself, but if you don’t mind watching football on your phone or iPad, this sounds like a good option.
If the above fails: cable-replacement live streaming services
Finally, there’s cable replacement live streaming services. I list this option last since it’s also the most expensive. The major services in this category—YouTube TV, Fubo TV, and Hulu Live—all carry the major network affiliates, plus a handful of other local stations. However, all three start at $65/month. Sling TV offers the local Fox and NBC affiliates, including sports broadcasts, in a handful of cities with its Sling Blue tier, at $35/month.
One downside is these services don’t carry smaller local TV stations, or vary on what local stations outside the Big Four network affiliates are offered. For example, only YouTube TV carries PBS. None of them seem to carry Chicago’s WGN, a major longtime local TV station, or MeTV (a network airing “Svengoolie” and classic reruns). In the Seattle area, YouTube TV only carries the main PBS station, KCTS, but not the area’s secondary station, KBTC.
Checking YouTube TV’s stations by zip code also shows it oddly offers out-of-market PBS stations to some cities’ subscribers (despite already having a local station). Looking at Indiana alone: South Bend subscribers get WGVU from Grand Rapids, Michigan; Indianapolis subscribers get WTIU from Bloomington, Indiana; and Fort Wayne subscribers get WBGU from Bowling Green, Ohio. None of which makes much sense?
Still, if you’re really in need of live local TV and none of the other options above will do, subscribing to one of these services will at least get you all the major commercial network affiliates.
While Locast shutting down is a blow, some alternatives do exist, including (if nothing else) TV antennas. If you’re not a sports fan, most of the major over-the-air local TV content replacements are free or inexpensive to watch. Still, it doesn’t say much about OTA commercial TV (or the stations’ owners) if the official alternatives for those with spotty TV reception are expensive cable or cable-replacement packages.
In my case, since I don’t want to mess with a TV antenna, I’m going with a mix of the following:
- ESPN+ and ESPN3 for ABC’s sports (NBA, WNBA, some NHL games), MLS games, and NHL games.
- The PBS and PBS Kids apps for everything on PBS.
- The Yahoo Sports app on my iPad for NFL football games.
- A few local TV stations’ apps for local news.
- The usual on-demand streaming services for the infrequent need for network TV shows.
Everything else about OTA TV I’ll just ignore, or find alternatives if needed. Given it’s otherwise filled with infomercials and time-filler talk and judge shows, plus the melodrama currently surrounding “Jeopardy!” alone, I won’t be missing much anyway.