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Anti-piracy Plan Signals HDTV Woes

Digital Living Room

October 11, 2001|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mark Mandell of Sherman Oaks is on the cutting edge of television, and he may end up bleeding a little.

Last year Mandell plunked down $2,000 for a Sony XBR400, a 36-inch monitor that can display high-definition TV signals when connected to the right kind of set-top box. A few months later, he bought a $900 Sony DirecTV receiver that can tune in HDTV signals via satellite or local broadcasts.

The gear gives Mandell, a piano technician by trade, a far better picture than he's ever seen. HDTV sets provide an image rich in detail, particularly when fed a program produced in high definition. They're designed to improve regular analog programs and DVDs too by electronically "upconverting" the picture to simulate HDTV.

But when Mandell heard the news about Hollywood studios wanting to scramble some HDTV signals to protect against piracy, he got a little worried. The studios have embraced an encryption technology that requires a high-speed digital connector--and his Sony TV doesn't have one.

Mandell isn't alone. About 2 million homes have a digital TV set of some kind, according to estimates by Statistical Research Inc., and all but a fraction of them have no digital inputs. In fact, only a few of the dozens of digital sets being sold today come with digital inputs, and they're just hitting the market. Instead, most digital sets connect to HDTV tuners, satellite receivers and cable set-top boxes through analog wires.

Only one manufacturer, Mitsubishi, has said it would offer upgrades to equip the sets it already has sold with digital inputs. In interviews, officials at Sony, RCA, Hitachi, Pioneer and Zenith said they had no plans to offer upgrades to existing sets. A spokesman for Philips and Samsung said they were still evaluating the situation.

Officials at Toshiba, JVC and Panasonic didn't respond to requests for comment.

Without a digital input, those sets won't be able to tune in to encrypted HDTV broadcasts coming out of a cable or satellite box. But spokesmen for several manufacturers insist that set owners won't miss much, if anything, simply because there won't be many programs encrypted.

Still, all of the major Hollywood studios--the companies responsible for many of the most popular movies and TV shows--have announced their support for encryption. Two of them--Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and Warner Bros.--have even obtained licenses to use one type of it on pay-per-view and other premium programming.

Under those licenses, Sony and Warner Bros. can insist that a premium HDTV program--for example, a pay-per-view movie not yet available on tape or DVD--be downgraded before passing over an unencrypted analog wire, providing half as much picture detail. By restricting premium HDTV programs to encrypted digital connections, the studios hope to prevent them from being copied and passed around the Internet.

Said Mitch Singer, a senior vice president at Sony Pictures Entertainment, "We keep our high-definition content in a vault.... It doesn't make any sense to broadcast high-definition content in the clear." He contended that most consumers wouldn't notice the downgrading because their sets would convert the signals into simulated HDTV.

The cable and satellite industries also have announced plans to build encryption and digital connectors into their set-top receivers. The two leading satellite services have embraced the DVI format, while the cable industry backs both DVI and FireWire.

Robert A. Perry, vice president of marketing for Mitsubishi Digital Electronics, said TV manufacturers have long known that sets would need digital connectors and that Hollywood would want to impose anti-piracy controls on them.

"We believe that that need was obvious, and we planned for it from Day 1," Perry said. "None of this is shocking news to any manufacturer. We all knew this was going to happen."

Mandell said that as long as he can get plenty of HDTV programs through his current equipment, he won't mind passing up the high-definition version of some premium programs.

"I'm actually fine," he said. "It's probably the HD purists, the HD fundamentalists, that are the ones that are going to have cause for concern."

*

Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology. He can be reached at jon.healey@latimes.com.

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