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Internet startup could prompt Fox Network and its affiliates to go off the air

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WATERTOWN - United Communications Corp. — parent company of Watertown stations WWNY TV-7 News and WNFY-Fox 28 — is keeping a close eye on federal court cases against an Internet startup that’s crafted a plan to retransmit shows on Fox Network, undermining paid advertising that networks and their stations rely on for revenue.

If the startup prevails in the courts, as it did at the district court level, Fox Network and its affiliated stations would go off the air for good, becoming a cable network only. The plan would be triggered, Fox announced this week, if Aereo Inc. isn’t stopped from grabbingover-the-air signals, capturing shows, and removing advertisements before they are rebroadcasted. Broadcast networks sued Aereo in March 2012, contending it’s violating copyright protections by capturing and retransmitting signals with tiny antennas. Starting at $8 a month, the startup’s service can broadcast shows to subscribers on computers and smartphones. It allows customers to record broadcast programming to be played back later, using antennas and digital video recorders to do so.

“We’re watching this closely because we value our program partnerships with Fox and CBS,” said Kenneth L. Dowdell, vice president of United Communications, Kenosha, Wisc. Fox and CBS “own TV stations in major and smaller markets, and they’re going to have to figure out what to do for their local affiliates if this happens.”

The question at stake in appeals courts, Mr. Dowdell said, is whether the startup has the right to rebroadcast signals from the air.

“This question is about technology, it’s about what rights the program originator has,” he said. “Is the content freely available for anyone to consume, or do I have a right to maintain control of it? How do I protect my content from being usurped? Over-the-air broadcasting has a glorified history because it reaches a lot of people. This is a threat and a challenge to the programming that’s readily available to people in broadcast service areas.”

If Fox elects to discontinue its broadcast service, Mr. Dowdell said, the agreement with affiliate WNFY-Fox 28 will likely need to be changed.

“We would have to look at how we acquire programming, how it will change in terms of how we operate today,” he said. “A fair amount of our programming is provided by syndication, and we like the programming we have available from FOX. Those terms could change, but we’re hopeful there’s some model that continues to make this programming available over the air.”

But regardless of how the decision might impact local programming in Watertown, he said, “We still believe in the value of local broadcasting and that having community awareness is the most important thing we offer. We’re glad we have entertainment, but the heart of what we do is to provide that community cloak.”

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