June 4, 2002 3:05 PM PDT

Clamping down on digital TV free-for-all

A coalition of movie studios, TV broadcast networks and electronics manufacturers has agreed on a proposal to prevent digital TV recordings from finding their way on the Internet.

The proposal, drafted by the coalition called the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), underscores Hollywood's concern that TV shows and movies will follow the same fate as the music industry where digitized content will be swapped freely online. But for other parties involved in the group, the proposal signifies the growing debate between consumers' fair use of content and to what extent content should be protected.

The BPDG aims to regulate what happens to the signal once it's picked up by the TV set. The proposal will require all digital TV set manufacturers to include a technology--called a demodulator--that will recognize a regular analog TV signal from a digital one. Digital signals will have a watermark, called a "broadcast flag," embedded into their transmissions. Once the signal reaches the set, the demodulator encrypts it, allowing the content to be recorded onto other home entertainment components such as a TiVo, set-top boxes, DVD recorders and home-networking systems.

The only place where the digital recordings cannot go is on the Internet. Consumers will not be able to post digital recordings on a file-sharing service or send clips of digital TV programs to their friends.

"In order to limit the consumer's ability to redistribute content outside of the home, we thought it was necessary to get a mandate from government," Andrew Setos, president of engineering at News Corp.'s Fox Group and BPDG co-chair, said in a May interview.

If the BPDG gets its way, the Federal Communications Commission will have regulatory powers to force consumer electronics companies to implement technologies to encrypt the digital transmission when it hits the TV set. Broadcasters expect the encryption process will block any potential distribution of TV shows and movies on the Internet.

The group has not determined its immediate next step, but will likely approach Congress and the FCC to support the proposal.

Naturally, every side has its problems with the process. Electronics manufacturers in particular have complained that Hollywood has been too heavy-handed because the encryption measures would not allow DVR recordings to be replayed on standard DVD players. The blocking of recordable DVDs from being replayed on standard DVDs would hamper the evolution for digital recordings.

This is an issue affecting many parties, especially the entertainment industry, consumer electronics manufacturers, TV networks and consumer groups. In due time, TV signals will be broadcast in digital format, allowing people to receive pristine reception of their favorite shows and movies. Digital broadcasts will likely change the way people watch television and open the doors for electronics companies to sell new TV sets and a new breed of devices.

But with digitization's perks come its headaches. As evidenced by the rise in popular file-sharing services such as Napster, Kazaa and LimeWire, content converted in digital files can be easily copied and swapped. Movie studios and broadcast networks are taking measures to prevent their content from being freely distributed.

Others have criticized the BPDG for being too heavily under the control of Hollywood's agenda. They claim the process of debate should have been more open to consumers and the press, who were not allowed to attend BPDG meetings.

"Digital TV standards are a matter of public policy; airwaves are public resource," said Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite.com and head of public advocacy group DigitalConsumer.org. "It is a public policy matter by which the process that these proposals were made was behind closed doors."

 

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