Broadcasters contest Dish’s “Auto Hop” technology in court

The fate of Auto Hop, the Dish Network’s new feature that allows subscribers to skip commercials in network programming after one day of its original broadcast, will be settled in federal court.

NBC, CBS and Fox have each sued Dish in California seeking to stop Auto Hop on grounds that it violates the networks’ copyrights and contractual agreements to retransmit programming. They argued that the technology also threatens the economic ecosystem that makes commercial television programming possible.

Dish, in turn, has sued the Big Four networks, claiming that the threat of litigation by the broadcasters was stifling innovation. The suit said the feature is nothing more than an improvement on the video cassette recorder.

Dish sought a declaratory judgment in New York that it is not infringing on any copyrights and is in compliance with its agreements with the networks.

“Consumers should be able to fairly choose for themselves what they do and do not want to watch,” said David Shull, Dish senior VP of programming. “Viewers have been skipping commercials since the advent of the remote control; we are giving them a feature they want and that gives them more control.”

Dish said that in addition to reports of legal actions, CBS, Fox and NBC have rejected ads for Dish’s Hopper DVR, the device with the Auto Hop function.

“We respect the business models that drive our industry, but we also embrace the evolving nature of technology and new ideas,” said Shull. “Advances in the ability to measure and target viewership will give the entire industry—including advertisers—the ability to develop better programming, more effective advertising and deliver an overall better experience to the viewer.”

Dish announced Auto Hop on May 10, a week before the broadcasters were to hold their upfront presentations, at which they show their new programming to media buyers and advertisers.

Over the next few weeks, the broadcasters will sell about $9 billion worth of ads on those primetime programs. During the upfront presentations, network executives called Auto Hop everything from illegal to an insult.

“This service takes existing network content and modifies it in a manner that is unauthorized and illegal. We believe this is a clear violation of copyright law and we intend to stop it,” CBS said.

NBC joined CBS in the criticism. “NBC has filed suit against this unlawful service in order to keep over the air broadcast television a strong competitor. Advertising generates the revenue that makes it possible for local broadcast stations and national broadcast networks to pay for the creation of the news, sports and entertainment programming that are the hallmark of American broadcasting,” NBC said.

“Dish,” NBC continued, “simply does not have the authority to tamper with the ads from broadcast replays on a wholesale basis for its own economic and commercial advantage.”

Fox’s suit charged copyright infringement and breach of contract. Fox is seeking to enjoin Dish’s auto hop service and wants an award of compensatory and statutory damages, costs and attorney’s fees.

Public Knowledge, the consumer advocate, took a different view.

“(The Fox) suit charges Dish with copyright violations for the satellite company’s DVR which allows consumers to skip commercials, but also against the Sling adapter (formerly Slingbox) which allows consumers to stream their TV signal to a laptop at a different location,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge.

“This is a frontal assault on home recording and fair use,” she said. “Ordinary consumers are in its crosshairs, while Fox demands technological stagnation from innovators.”

Public Knowledge has also supported Aereo TV, which is being sued by broadcasters for using its content.

Auto Hop is a patented technology that allows Dish’s subscribers to avoid commercials they don’t want to watch. The satellite operator noted that since the introduction of the video cassette recorder, TV viewers have been able to time shift viewing and fast-forward through commercials.

The DVR, it said, is the next generation of DVR and that Auto Hop “allows consumers who are already time-shifting their television viewing to skip commercials more efficiently by automatically fast-forwarding through all the commercials at the touch of a button.”

The commercials are not erased or deleted. “They remain on the recording and can be readily viewed at each customer’s individual option. The Dish Auto Hop feature does not alter or modify the broadcast signal,” Dish said.

Auto Hop is an extension of the Hopper VCR’s PrimeTime Anytime capability, a feature that allows viewers, with a single click, to record all of the primetime TV programming on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC in HD.

Once the viewer enables the PrimeTime Anytime feature, the Hopper automatically stores these shows for eight days after they have aired, creating an on-demand library of approximately 100 hours of primetime TV shows, and making it easy to access episodes from last night, or last week.

A viewer can watch a show with the Auto Hop option commercial-free starting at 1 a.m. ET, after a show has been recorded to the Hopper’s PrimeTime Anytime library. Prior to that, the Hopper’s 30-second “hop forward” feature continues to work for same-day viewing.

The New York Times reported there are fears that the networks could pull their popular programming from Dish in the future if the Auto Hop dispute is not resolved. In the lawsuit, Fox said it had to take “swift action in order to aggressively defend the future of free, over-the-air television.”