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Digital Living Room

Copyright Concerns Are Creating Static for Digital TV

March 22, 2001|JON HEALEY |

'Digital" is not the Esperanto of the living room.

Instead of being the great unifier connecting televisions to a broad stream of programming, digital technologies are dividing TV set makers from cable operators, broadcasters and programmers. While every faction of the TV industry has an incentive to go digital, the various groups are split on who should go first and how.

Central to the dispute are many of the same sorts of copyright issues at play in the debate about Napster, the beleaguered online music-swapping service that allows users to share digital copies of songs freely across the Internet.

Anyone who's wandered through an electronics store knows that digital TV can deliver a great picture, rich in color and detail. Beyond that, the technology can deliver multiple video broadcasts in a single channel, high-speed data streams and cinema-quality sound.

But those benefits haven't reached many Americans yet--less than 1% of U.S. homes have equipped themselves for digital TV. While some of the blame rests on the high price of digital sets, another factor is the contention within the TV industry.

The divisions were on display in Washington last week, when an array of executives spoke to a House subcommittee about digital TV. The subcommittee wanted to know, in the words of one top Republican, "why the transition to digital television is off track and how to put it back on track." Commercial TV outlets were supposed to offer digital broadcasts by 2002, but less than 15% have launched their digital channels so far.

Representatives of the TV and consumer-electronics industries replied by pointing fingers at one another. Set makers said the public won't buy digital TVs until there's more programming, and programmers said they can't justify investing in digital until more consumers buy sets.

That refrain was familiar, given that the same arguments were trotted out in the early days of color TV. What was new was the split between broadcasters and consumer-electronics companies about how to combat Internet piracy.

Unlike analog broadcasts, digital transmissions can be recorded and copied endlessly with no loss in quality. That's why piracy is a potentially huge problem.

Congress might try to bring the parties together, either by browbeating or legislating. In the meantime, programmers and high-tech companies are searching for ways to deter piracy by limiting the recording and retransmitting of digital TV shows.

Satellite TV went digital in 1994, and digital cable started appearing a few years after that. Because they charge for their channels, the satellite and cable companies have long used encryption to secure their transmissions. Local broadcasters, however, transmit unscrambled signals so they can be tuned in with a basic antenna.

Although the broadcasters generate some of their own shows, for the most part they distribute other companies' programs, just as the cable and satellite companies do. Now, some broadcasters argue that the lack of encryption means they won't be able to obtain the same quality of programming as their rivals because producers won't want their shows copied for free on the Net.

That's why some networks want to scramble broadcasts or add watermarks that require any digital copies to be scrambled, making them unviewable if downloaded over the Net. They're pressing a consortium of high-tech companies to include such protections in security software for a popular digital connector known as "firewire."

The consortium has tentatively agreed to build watermark detection into its software. Still, it's not at all clear how that approach could be made to work for the broadcasters' digital channels. Would digital TV sets, antennas, VCRs and digital recorders all have to be modified to pass along or respond to the watermarks? If so, how much more would consumers have to pay?

As Chris Cookson, chief technology officer for Warner Bros. in Burbank, told the subcommittee, "We wish there was a silver-bullet technology to protect broadcast transmissions, but we haven't been able to find one to date that doesn't create more problems than it solves."

Meanwhile, the Hollywood studios have been wrangling with the high-tech consortium about limits on copying. Digital programs can be transmitted in a way that stops digital VCRs from making any copies, or making copies that can be duplicated.

The technology also can be used to force personal video recorders, such as the TiVo set-top boxes, to erase any copies of premium programs an hour or two after they are made. Such restrictions could erase the freedom TiVo users enjoy to watch what they want on their own schedule.

The cable operators, fearful of losing premium programs to the satellite operators, have already agreed to much of what the studios requested. Their new set-top boxes will be able to bar digital copying of pay-per-view events and limit recording of premium channels, if the producers of the programs insist on those limits.

Such limits make the consumer-electronics lobbyists foam at the mouth. David Arland, director of U.S. government and public relations for Thomson Multimedia, told the subcommittee that consumers won't embrace digital TV if it means giving up some of their recording rights.

"If consumers discover that their [personal video recorders] or digital video recorders are not working or are erasing after 45 minutes," Arland warned, "then consumers will revolt and the DTV transition will be set back immeasurably."


Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the digital living room.

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