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Locast review: free local programming with a catch

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If you’re not a member, expect to be interrupted

Locast NYC

If you’re one of the many people who have cut the cord and moved from cable to streaming TV, you’ve probably lost access to most, or all, of your local stations. And your options (unless you want to reattach that cable box) are limited. You can buy a separate antenna in order to access these stations, but your reception may be limited by how strong the signals are and whether they are blocked by nearby structures. So what do you do?

There is currently at least one service that is trying to fill the gap. Locast is a relatively recent streaming service that offers access to local broadcasting. Currently, it covers nine cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Denver, and Washington, DC.

As a New Yorker who abandoned cable some months ago, I have to admit that I was curious how Locast worked and what it would give me access to. In New York City, Locast makes 17 local stations available, including local outlets for major networks (CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, PBS), and not-so-major local stations (WWOR, WPIX, and several other English- and Spanish-language stations).

Quick and easy — and irritating

Locast’s sign-up process is not at all difficult: I just clicked on the city I live in, and then registered with an email and password. (You can also sign up through Facebook.) The site required that I enable geolocation; Locast doesn’t let viewers access any stations outside their designated market area.

After that, I was given access to a fairly standard programming grid with the stations presented in channel order. I clicked on the one I wanted to view, and was immediately watching the show that was currently running. Locast is accessible via a variety of formats: I viewed it via the web from a desktop computer, on a Roku-enabled TV, and using the Android app (there is also an iOS app). The interface and service were pretty much identical on each, and the quality of the stream was reasonable — I didn’t see any stuttering or pauses.

How can Locast do this? Unlike Aereo, a commercial service which provided local programming until it was shot down by the Supreme Court in 2014, Locast has registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy group (under the auspices of the Sports Fan Coalition). According to its FAQ, since it doesn’t get any “direct or indirect commercial advantage” from the transmissions, it has the right to broadcast local stations.

The FAQ also cites Locast’s ability to charge a fee “necessary to defray the actual and reasonable costs” of providing the service. Technically, Locast doesn’t charge a fee — it asks for contributions of at least $5 per month. You do have the choice of not paying that “contribution” — but if you don’t, you’ll find Locast’s broadcasts practically unwatchable.

Why? Because every 15 minutes, the broadcast is interrupted by a request for the membership contribution. Actually, the broadcast isn’t just interrupted — it’s completely stopped. After the plea for money is over, you aren’t returned to your program, but bounced back to the programming grid. If you want to continue to watch your show, you have to click on it again — and say goodbye to any dialogue you may have missed in the meantime. (While I didn’t pony up the $5 requested, judging from user comments for the Android app, members do get to watch shows uninterrupted.)

If you do choose to donate, you can pay either via credit card, PayPal, or bitcoin. I could find no information on the site about how to cancel a subscription, and the only obvious way to contact the company was through an online form. So if you’ve agreed to a monthly payment and then later change your mind, you can try the form, but if you’re in a hurry, you may need to cancel by stopping payment on your card services.

Watching TV — the old-fashioned way

Another thing to keep in mind: Locast doesn’t have any type of recording feature. In fact, watching Locast is a bit like watching TV before VCRs were invented: if there’s a program you want to catch, you’ve got to turn it on when it’s playing. And if you need a bathroom break, wait for the commercial — you can’t pause the stream either. (Of course, you can always record your screen using a separate app and play it back later.)

It will be interesting to find out what happens to Locast — not only as a service, but as a company that is currently under the radar of those networks that took such exception to Aereo. (I sent a message to the company asking if they had any legal challenges on the horizon, but haven’t yet heard back.) If enough viewers see it as worthy of a $5 per month subscription (since it is essentially unwatchable otherwise), and if the courts view that as a necessary fee, then Locast may be around for a while.

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