BENKELMAN, Neb. -- As the television-over-the-Internet service Aereo squared off against broadcasters over copyright claims in the Supreme Court, a similar startup called FilmOn stood on the sidelines.
Like Aereo, FilmOn offers over-the-air TV channels through a website and mobile apps. Also similar to Aereo, FilmOn's offerings are affected by Wednesday's Supreme Court decision saying that such a setup is prohibited under U.S. copyright law, at least without paying broadcasters.
While the case was being argued in court, FilmOn founder Alki David told me that broadcast channels represent less than 5 percent of what FilmOn offers, so there's plenty to watch -- regardless of the outcome. In anticipation of the court ruling, I spent part of a recent trip assessing that claim using a laptop, an iPad, an iPhone and a Samsung Android phone.
While Aereo's monthly service starts at $8, FilmOn is free. But you have to put up with a short video ad before you start watching. You can watch on Windows and Mac computers, iOS, Android and BlackBerry 10 devices and Roku's streaming player. You can watch channels live or record up to 10 hours of shows for free. You can also buy more space to store the shows you record.
FilmOn offers broadcast stations from nearly 20 markets in the U.S., including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston. That's bound to go away following Wednesday's ruling, unless FilmOn is able to negotiate licensing deals with some or all of the broadcasters. In fact, a federal judge in Washington had already banned FilmOn's broadcast offerings in most of the country (though I was able to watch anyway during my trip by deceiving the app about my location).
Beyond broadcast TV:
Besides over-the-air channels, FilmOn offers more than 600 on all sorts of topics, including fashion, travel, comedy and news.
Most of the channels are packaged by FilmOn based on programming it owns or licenses. FilmOn also offers some cable TV channels outright -- little-known ones such as Pivot, a channel launched last year to target 18 to
34 year olds. It also has TV channels from abroad.
A handful of channels require a $10-a-month subscription, but there's plenty available for free. The subscription also gets you channels in high definition and removes FilmOn's ads.
During one segment of my trip, I had an hour to kill before I was ready to sleep.
On an iPad, I started with Bikini Beach TV. What else would I watch traveling through Nebraska at midnight? But I got bored after a few minutes of scantily clad women posing next to cars at a convention. I switched to the GeoBeats Travel channel for round-the-clock blurbs on various destinations, each lasting as little as a minute. None of the destinations interested me, so I moved on.
After getting an error trying to watch Wine Channel TV, I switched to my e-book.
I didn't fare any better earlier on a laptop in Colorado, as friends napped in another room. I was more drawn to the broadcast offerings, which are likely going away.
Indeed, FilmOn has plenty beyond broadcast channels. However, the service feels like cable TV packages with a zillion channels, few of which I actually watch.
David believes people just want to be entertained, just like watching television passively, and don't want to spend a lot of time seeking out content on demand (though FilmOn has some of that, too).
There's some truth to that, as long as the content is interesting. One problem is that FilmOn seems geared toward a young male audience, so the channels that come up first include College Hotties, Hooters' Calendar Girls and Live Boxing. In fact, David told me the bikini and horror channels are among the most popular on FilmOn.
It takes some patience to find other things to watch. War buffs will appreciate FilmOn's extensive library of documentaries on World War II. Immigrants will appreciate news channels from their home country.
The problem is there are plenty of other video offerings on the Internet. I already have long, growing watch lists on Hulu, Netflix and Amazon. Many offer auto play, so I can sit back and have the next item automatically play, just like television.
FilmOn is bound to appeal to some people, including those content with watching bikinis and battles all day long.
To me, getting broadcast feeds live is what sets both FilmOn and Aereo apart.