New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio left the stage, and Internet Week opened with a pause. A really awkward pause.
The subject of the first interview of the four days of panel discussions and on-stage conversations with Internet entrepreneurs and other Web notables was Chet Kanojia, the founder and CEO of Aereo. His company has been in the spotlight of media scrutiny for months now, and its fate rests in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. He's no stranger to difficult questions. And he's rather good at answering them: I've seen it up close. I spent many hours with him, over lunch, in conference rooms, and wandering around Aereo's headquarters in New York City and its office in Boston, while working on a feature for this Inc. magazine.
But when longtime media critic Michael Wolff asked Kanojia onstage at Internet Week how the reception from his company's tiny antennas performed on dusty old TV sets, Kanojia paused.
After clearing his throat, Kanojia politely noted that Aereo's antennas actually stream television online to subscribers' Internet-enabled devices, which are generally laptops, or very modern televisions. Touche.
So it went.
At another awkward moment, Wolff came out with: "There are many people who would say you are a thief." He also compared Aereo to Napster. Kanojia responded that the question of theft wasn't what brought the company to the Supreme Court and no one in a similar position had ever paid for copyright. He said he'd be happy to pay if other hardware companies (like set-top boxes) agreed on some copyright amount to pay.
Wolff declared at one point: "Your business is based on making money off of that programming that you don't own, you haven't paid for.... You have just found something of a work-around."
Kanojia said that broadcasts over public airwaves have always been free to consumers, and should be accessible to them without needing to subscribe to an increasingly costly cable bundle of channels. "How would you say that an in-home antenna is good enough, but an away antenna is not?" He added separately: "It should be totally legal. This shouldn't be a controversy."
Among the subjects on which Wolff and Kanojia disagreed: The primary revenue stream of broadcast TV networks (advertising vs. retransmission fees); the basic arguments behind Aereo's legal cases ("They say you're like Napster," Wolff said. "None of those were the claims," Kanojia responded); whether Kanojia should have a contingency plan if the Supreme Court rules against him (He says he does not, and as a venture-backed company has a fiscal responsibility to not have a backup plan.).
If Kanojia and Aereo had underdog status, what with every major broadcast network opposing its existence in the country's highest court, Wolff's aggressive lines of questioning, which yielded far more useless debate over facts than news, only solidified it. The audience smiled and chuckled as Kanojia referred to large networks as "cabals" and when he responded to Wolff's question: "You must wake up in the middle of the night?"
Kanojia responded with a smile: "I mean. I sleep very little."