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Pass the buck and point the finger

Wed, 09/30/1998 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, Finger Pointer-in-Chief and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy
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By Jeffrey Krauss, finger pointer-in-chief and President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Digital television will get here soon, but the broadcasters, TV manufacturers and movie-makers are squabbling with each other over various last-minute details. This squabbling could blossom into huge battles that delay the deployment of digital television, or they could be settled quickly. While new disputes seem to arise every month, this month's hot topics are copy protection, V-chip content advisories, and the "seal of approval."

Copy protection

The consumer electronics industry has already taken a lot of heat on the Firewire issue. FCC Chairman Kennard sent a letter to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA), telling them to stop fighting among themselves and agree on an interface by November. So CEMA merged its two competing standards committees, R-4.1 and R-4.7, into a new R-4.8 committee to define the baseband digital interface that will connect digital TVs, VCRs and set-top boxes.

Then the Motion Picture Association of America (with the support of broadcasters and the cable industry) said it wanted copy protection on this interface, to prevent a consumer or pirate from making perfect digital copies of movies. The CEMA Consumer Electronics Caucus reacted negatively to this, even though the one copy protection proposal that seems to be the favorite was developed by a group of five CEMA member companies in Japan. But there is the valid point that the Japanese government has not yet granted export approval for the copy protection plan, because it includes a new, secure form of digital encryption.

The CEMA Caucus might have the voting power to block the adoption of the interface standard, which would make it difficult to hook up these various home video devices. Or maybe copy protection won't be included in the standard, which means MPAA could withhold the broadcast of the top-rated movies from digital TV. In any case, a fight between CEMA and MPAA may be in the works.

You recall the V-chip and the Valenti Committee, which, together with heavy Congressional pressure, resulted in an agreement by broadcasters to assign content advisory ratings to TV programs. Parents would be able to block the viewing of programs based on their rating. The rating categories include "dialogue," "language," "sex," "violence," "children" and "fantasy violence." And, oh yes, "not rated." The plan is that a parent can select categories of programs to block. Presumably, when your kid turns the TV to a program that you have blocked, the TV will go dark.

But the fight here is over "not rated" programming. This includes news, sports and commercials. The broadcasters, when they agreed to this concept, thought that everyone agreed that "not rated" meant "not blocked." But CEMA has taken a strong stand that viewers should have the right to block any programming, even unrated programming.

A research report was just released that says that very young children are sometimes scared by news programs. That of course strengthens CEMA's side. But the real issue is that commercials are unrated. The V-chip becomes a "commercial killer"! Not exactly what Mr. Valenti had in mind. As you can imagine, this is a very big issue for broadcasters.

The seal of approval

Finally, we come to the Advanced Television Systems Committee's "seal of approval." The ATSC was the group that wrote the digital TV standard, after the Grand Alliance finished its development work. The group has started a certification program that will grant TV manufacturers the right to use the ATSC DTV logo on digital TV sets. This is a good way to educate consumers on which TV sets to buy for watching digital TV, because some consumers will be confused between digital TV broadcasting and the three different (and incompatible) digital satellite TV services. The DTV logo on the TV set will guarantee that it can display all of the digital picture formats allowed in the standard.

Broadcasters wanted to apply the DTV logo to encoders that do the MPEG compression, so that they could be sure that the encoders produce a digital bit stream that conforms to the standard and is compatible with these TV sets. But the encoder manufacturers have refused to cooperate, saying that it is the signal that comes out of the broadcaster's transmitter that needs a seal of approval, not the encoder, because the encoder is only one piece of hardware in the TV station. The broadcasters, on the other hand, say that they can't be held responsible for a non-compliant signal that makes the TV set go dark, if it results from a design problem in the encoder.

So it appears that we will have digital TV sets that are certified to receive and display digital bitstreams that are properly formulated, but no way to know whether the signal coming out of the broadcaster's antenna tower is properly formulated. Unless, of course, the TV set goes dark. Then the broadcaster and the encoder manufacturer can point their fingers at each other, all the way to the courthouse.

e-mail: jkrauss@cpcug.org

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