Whether you’re setting up a big-screen television to enhance the atmosphere of your student union or hosting a special viewing party, broadcasting live performances can help foster a sense of shared experience and boost engagement. Indeed, research does suggest that viewing television in the company of others impacts viewer enthusiasm.
Athletic games, political debates, and other live programs make great fodder for fostering campus community through shared experiences. There’s no doubt that schools have a vital role in promoting democracy, and sparking healthy discourse by airing political debates helps encourage open dialogue and civic engagement. Sporting events are an example of an opportunity for shared identity and belonging for those rallying around a common cause — and the union can be an excellent place for that: In September, when the University of Tennessee and the University of Florida furthered their nearly 70-year rivalry in a game at Florida, Tennessee fans kept passions ignited back home by holding a watch party complete with food, drinks, and games at the Student Union Ballroom.
But identifying the right resources, technology, and legal means to showcase live events, movies, and other shared, public experiences isn’t always easy. Understanding the variables and responsibilities when showcasing broadcast events on campus can sometimes be time consuming, confusing, and even disconcerting, so here is an exploration of delivery methods, access options, and legal considerations for broadcasting content on campus.
Cable Versus Streaming
The choice between cable TV and streaming is a matter of preference, needs, and budget. Cable TV often requires a cable box or cable-ready TV, comes with fixed channel bundles and contracts, and may be more expensive. Streaming provides access to a library of on-demand content and offers a range of price points, including free options with ads. Some streaming services (including Sling TV, YouTube TV, and Hulu + Live TV) also offer live TV channels.
Many of the individuals with whom we spoke, including members of the Southeastern Conference Union Directors group, said their school pays for a campus cable system through their regional providers. Specific channels included with cable packages vary, but many campus packages offer comprehensive sports, entertainment, and news options. For example, Dwyane Issacs, senior director of the Division of Student Life at the University of Florida, said the Reitz Union used cable to stream the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“We have cable TV boxes in areas like the food court area that are always on broadcasting games, debates, and news, among other things,” Issacs said. “We don’t stream anything unless we purchase the copyrights to do so.”
Legal Compliance Considerations
Student unions can avoid copyright issues by turning to general counsel for legal interpretation on whether the school has the necessary licenses and permissions in place to stream copyrighted content.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act of 2020 “significantly increases criminal penalties for those who, willfully and for commercial advantage or private financial gain, illegally stream copyrighted material.” However, displaying content in a college union typically does not constitute commercial use, as the event is not used for promotional or financial gain. Always check with your general counsel first.
In addition to your general counsel, it’s always a good idea to contact your athletics department for guidance on sports broadcasts. The Arkansas Student Union at the University of Arkansas, for instance, reports using a campus-wide cable contract to show SEC games during their various seasons — but is generally not asked to host formal watch parties, as the school’s athletics program tends to do so in larger spaces like the basketball arena.
On the other hand, the Russell House University Union at the University of South Carolina goes through the school’s athletics department to gain permission to show games in the union building. Finally, the Gertrude C. Ford Ole Miss Student Union runs three cable TVs in its lobbies throughout the week.
“On game days, we have the TVs dedicated to SEC Network, ESPN, and usually CBS (depending on the schedule),” said Bradley Baker, director of the Gertrude C. Ford Ole Miss Student Union at the University of Mississippi. “We don’t utilize volume and have CC activated throughout the week.”
Baker said that while the union has not hosted an indoor watch party, it has hosted viewing parties for away games in The Grove (a central campus tailgating area): “These were free to the public, and no funds were received for broadcasting. All broadcasting has come from our campus cable package.”
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to streaming or showing live events on campus, live TV can be a fantastic way to bring the campus community together, create memories, and increase engagement for all. Just be sure to consult with your general counsel to navigate any associated legal complexities first.