This week, live-TV startup Aereo released an update to its Roku app, adding a new visual interface and enabling full control with the Roku remote. It's a relief to customers of both Roku and Aereo, who previously could only navigate the Aereo channel through an iOS app. But CNET's story on Aereo's update is more significant for what's built up around that small bit of news: an announcement that CNET is barred from reviewing Aereo and its products due to parent company CBS's lawsuit with Aereo.
CNET's ban on Aereo reviews is not a surprise. Two weeks ago at CES, CBS banned Dish from consideration for a CNET award and future reviews coverage. The Verge later learned that Dish's Hopper with Sling DVR had in fact won CNET's award for Best In Show at CES, and that CBS corporate pulled the plug, over CNET editors' objections.
But if CBS's motivation began with keeping Dish's DVR off its subsidiary's stage, it still had to come up with a policy to justify that. That policy, invented and enforced largely on the spot, barred CNET from reviewing any product or service directly implicated in a CBS lawsuit, but permitted news coverage of the same. As we predicted, this tenuous distinction betwen news and reviews doesn't simply apply to Dish and its Hopper, but also to Aereo. This is the first time we're seeing that broader policy applied to another company.
Above: screenshot of CNET's Aereo disclosure and reviews policy.
CNET's news story on Aereo, written by managing editor John P. Falcone, includes what might be called review content. Falcone writes that "Aereo [is] squarely on the bleeding edge of the growing array of cable TV alternatives," due to its improved Roku app, addition of cable channel Bloomberg TV, and planned expansion to 22 more US cities. He also notes that Aereo's retransmission of live TV "offers a unique delineation" from Netflix and Hulu, and compares Aereo favorably to its live-TV competitors Boxee TV and Simple.TV. Finally, Falcone notes, linking to a pre-ban CNET review of Aereo, that the update largely addresses concerns CNET raised in that review.
The "CNET story about Aereo is mostly about parent company CBS' lawsuit with Aereo."
Much of the story, however, consists of background on CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox's lawsuits against Aereo. It notes that Aereo streams the networks' broadcasts without their permission. It explains how the retransmission fees not paid by Aereo are important to the TV networks' profit margins. But the story does not anywhere explain Aereo's defense that assigning each customer a unique antenna in its facility puts Aereo's service within the boundaries of the law. Aereo, from this perspective, is no different from a DVR.
As AllThingsD's Peter Kafka writes, the "CNET story about Aereo is mostly about parent company CBS' lawsuit with Aereo." But even with respect to that lawsuit, or the history of CNET's coverage, it's not the whole story. The whole story may be impossible for CNET to tell without compromising its objectivity, its corporate owners, or both.
"Whether [Aereo is] the beginning of a revolution or a flash in the pan remains an open question — one that the courts will need to decide." — John Falcone, CNET
CNET and its staff have been put in an extraordinarily difficult position by CBS. They have to prove that what remains of their editorial independence is full and robust. They have to cover news controversies involving their publication and its parent company; these controversies necessarily involve some evaluation of the value of products and competing legal claims. And they have to do it without further antagonizing or embarrassing CBS.
It's not clear if anyone knows how or whether this can be done. This, so far, is how CNET is trying to thread the needle.
CNET and Aereo were not able to immediately return requests for comment.