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FCC Sets Rules for Digital TV

The standards define recording rights as well as require operators to provide unscrambled versions of programs.

September 11, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Federal regulators Wednesday made it easier for viewers to tune in digital television, adopting standards for a new type of set that can receive digital TV signals from cable without a converter box.

The Federal Communications Commission rules also ensure that viewers with older digital sets will be able to view some, but not all, high-definition TV programs carried on cable and satellite TV. And the rules define viewers' recording rights for digital programs, setting limits similar to those for recording conventional analog TV.

The first "cable ready" digital sets are expected to hit the market late next year. The FCC has required all local TV stations to shift to digital broadcasting, with analog channels going dark as early as 2006.

The major Hollywood studios had objected to an earlier version of the rules, arguing that they would fuel video piracy. The FCC gave the studios only a portion of what they sought, but it also pledged to move quickly on one of the studios' top priorities: a rule barring HDTV programs from being retransmitted over the Internet.

The order, which the FCC adopted unanimously, grew out of a deal struck in December between consumer-electronics firms and cable TV operators. Ending years of acrimony, the groups proposed a set of standards for making digital TV sets compatible with cable systems' basic digital and HDTV services.

The final rules require that viewers be able to make unlimited copies of digital TV programs on over-the-air networks and at least one copy of programs on cable networks. Cable and satellite operators could eliminate copying only of pay-per-view and video-on-demand programs, although they would have to permit temporary recordings by digital recorders.

New categories of programs could be subject to strict restrictions on copying, subject to FCC review.

The rules also have two provisions affecting people whose digital sets aren't capable of descrambling copy-protected programs. Those provisions effectively require cable and satellite operators to provide unscrambled versions of all their programs and bar unscrambled HDTV programs on over-the-air networks from being downgraded to lower-quality pictures.

The latter technique, known as "down-resolution," could still be used on cable networks, pay-per-view and video-on-demand channels. The upshot is that many viewers with older sets could conceivably lose their ability to watch the high-definition versions of those programs.

The FCC agreed to consider more rules to cover new anti-piracy techniques and the use of "down-resolution" on cable and satellite programming.

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