TV on Web gets bad reception

Much to the chagrin of the television broadcasting world, a quasi-renegade Web site called iCraveTV.com is streaming 17 channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Canada's CBC, over the Internet.

Much to the chagrin of the television broadcasting world, a quasi-renegade Web site called iCraveTV.com is streaming 17 channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Canada's CBC, over the Internet.

This might be a boon for desk-bound office workers who want to squeeze in some TV time, but it's also a real-life drama that pits TV broadcasters against iCraveTV.

The North American Broadcasters Association (representing 37 networks and broadcasters in the US, Canada, and Mexico) and the National Football League both promise to take iCraveTV to court if it continues its service.

At least for the time being, iCraveTV remains defiant.

Breaking Ground and Breaking Laws

The iCraveTV case represents what could be the first of many battles between broadcasters and new media companies. At issue is whether iCraveTV is violating broadcasters' copyrights by carrying programming on its Web site.

The Canadian Association of Broadcasters filed a cease-and-desist order against iCraveTV on Friday ordering it to stop "unlawfully streaming broadcasters' signals through their Web site." The letter demands compliance by today at 5:00 p.m. eastern standard time, or else further legal action will be taken.

"ICraveTV.com isn't playing by the rules," said Michael McCabe, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, in a prepared statement. "They have neither sought nor obtained permission to use our signals."

The NFL promised it would take legal action if iCraveTV violated the NFL's blackout rule this weekend. (The NFL bars the transmission of its games within some local markets.) A league spokesperson said Monday the NFL was conferring with its lawyers to determine whether iCraveTV had violated the blackout rule.

iCrave-a-Lawsuit.com?

Bill Craig, iCraveTV president, stands resolute regardless of looming legal action. "Why should we stop broadcasting?" Craig asks.

Today, the company said it had no plans to discontinue programming and declined further comment.

Craig argues that Canadian cable and satellite companies pay the Canadian Royalty Tribunal to carry U.S. signals, which in turn distributes over $40 million in funds to U.S. broadcasters and program rights holders. Craig says he's willing to pay broadcasting tariffs to rebroadcast programming over the Net, but until such a tariff exists, it's business as usual.

"ICraveTV is acting similar to someone who has stolen your car and called you up a day later and says, now I will negotiate a [selling] price," responds Bill Roberts, secretary general of the North American Broadcasters Association.

Roberts and the NFL say iCraveTV is violating a recently passed U.S. law that prohibits the transmission of programming on the Internet and the altering of the broadcast picture.

ICraveTV has a security system on its site designed to keep U.S. viewers out. To gain access to iCraveTV you must enter a Canadian area code. Both the NFL and the NABA call that security measure a "joke."

Because iCraveTV shrinks the picture and wraps its own advertising around the video feed, broadcasters say iCraveTV is violating copyright laws by altering the broadcast image.

Couch Potato, Meet Mouse Potato

It is unclear what penalty non-Canadian users face if they fib in order to gain access to programming. McCarthy and Roberts point out that it is impossible to stop anyone from gaining access to iCraveTV programming. McCarthy says that iCraveTV games viewers would not face any fines.

Don't expect picture-perfect streaming; quality ranges from excellent to poor. Craig says quality depends on available Net bandwidth. Currently iCraveTV offers service optimized for people who connect to the site with 56K modems and a 128KB stream for broadband surfers. ICraveTV supports both Microsoft's Media Player and Real Networks' RealPlayer.

Craig says revenue will be generated from selling advertising that runs along the bottom of the video image. He says the week-old iCraveTV received an impressive average of 360,000 hits an hour on Friday.

"I've got a lot of personal skin tied up in this," Craig says. "I'm not going to give up without a fight."

The NABA's Roberts promises to give him that fight. However, Roberts adds, "to be fair to iCraveTV, it is breaking new ground and raising issues that are only at the tip of the iceberg in a new era of broadcast and Web services."

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