Locast expands service to Cleveland, now reaches more than 50% of U.S. viewers

Cleveland-area cord cutters have a new way to watch their local stations. Locast, the non-profit that delivers free retransmission of local broadcasters over the internet, announced Wednesday that it had expanded its service to a large swath of Northeast Ohio.

This addition brings the controversial service to 30 markets and raises its potential audience to just over half of the U.S. population—165.2 million people, by Locast’s math. In the Cleveland “designated market area,” which includes the nearby cities of Akron and Canton, Locast carries the over-the-air feeds of 70 local channels, including their digital-only secondary channels.

Locast requests a $5 monthly donation to cover its costs (and regularly displays a request for this donation to viewers who haven’t contributed) but requires no payment from its 2.5 million registered users.

RELATED: Locast now has 2.3M registered users

Marc Lumpkin, a spokesman for Locast, said in an e-mail “a small percentage, about on par with the percentage of PBS viewers that donate,” contribute. He said the service, which launched in 2018 by the Sports Fans Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit, does not break out how many registered users watch regularly.

Locast does not pay retransmission fees to local broadcasters, relying on language in the Copyright Act of 1976 that permits free secondary transmission “by a governmental body, or other nonprofit organization, without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage.”

In 2019, ABC, CBS, Fox and NBCUniversal sued Locast in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, challenging that interpretation. Locast has since countersued, alleging the broadcasters have colluded against it; the case continues to proceed toward a trial.

Ann Marie Cumming, senior vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, said in an email that organization continues to frown on Locast, pointing to a 2019 NAB statement backing the broadcasters’ lawsuit and calling Locast “thinly disguised as a not-for-profit entity.”

In addition to viewing over its web interface, Locast offers apps for Google’s Android and Android TV; Apple’s iOS, iPadOS and Apple TV; Amazon Fire devices; Roku players; TiVo devices; and some Dish Network and DirecTV satellite receivers. DirecTV owner AT&T also donated $500,000 to Locast in 2019.

Even as retransmission fights continue to escalate and regularly take local broadcasters off of subscribers' screens, one analyst questioned how much Locast will appeal to broadcasters as a potential end-run around uncooperative TV providers.

“Locast represents a risk to their carriage revenues from pay-TV providers, which is significant,” emailed Brett Sappington, a vice president with the market-research firm Interpret. "Increased exposure for advertising is helpful but is small given relatively low adoption and use of Locast.”