Free no more?

Television broadcasting marked the rise of a powerful mass media engine that currently defines popular culture – mass media that is now restricting the consumer's free access to content that used to be free

The FCC has approved TiVo’s implementation of content management techniques that support the broadcast flag, including a proposed feature that would allow TiVo owners to access content on their PVRs from remote locations over the Internet. Pictured: the Series2 DVR.

Of all the technical innovations that have influenced our lives and economic fortunes during the past century, none has had a more profound impact on our lives than broadcasting — first radio, then television.

According to the Department of Commerce, the total 2002 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for all information industries in the U.S. was just over $1 trillion. Telecommunications and information/data processing services make up well over half of the total information industry GDP. Motion picture- and sound recording industry revenues were $81.8 billion. Cable- and pay-TV revenues were $80.5 billion. Television broadcasting accounted for about $37 billion, and radio broadcasting added another $14.8 billion.

So how is it that the impact of broadcasting on our lives has been so profound? Simply stated, broadcasting technologies have become the portals through which we see and hear the world around us. Broadcasters have done more to bring entertainment into our homes and to shape our perceptions of the world than any other medium.

Old Hollywood

That being said, there are some who believe that the Internet and networked delivery of digital media content may soon relegate broadcasting to a less prominent future role. Thus, it should come as no surprise that today's well-entrenched mass media are doing everything in their power to control the future.

Perhaps a brief review of the impact of broadcasting on the motion-\ picture industry will help clarify this discussion. During the “golden age” of radio, before TV brought moving pictures into our homes, movies informed and entertained patrons. Newsreels brought information and images from around the world into the theater as a prelude to the visual entertainment experience.

With the introduction of television broadcasting, news, information and entertainment flowed into our homes, for free. By the 1960s, movie theaters had lost 60 percent of their average weekly attendance and more than half of the 20,000 theaters that began operations in the 1940s were forced to close down.

When Hollywood learned about the tremendous promotional impact of television, it used broadcasting to reverse its declining fortunes. In the ‘70s, the motion picture industry began to advertise its wares, using the power of broadcasting to bring patrons back to the theaters. And, when it accepted the reality of videocassette recorders — instead of trying to make them illegal — Hollywood leveraged the platform developed by broadcasting to bring its movies into our homes.

The $37 billion in 2002 revenues from “free TV” suggests a somewhat different reality than “free” TV; we pay for broadcasting indirectly because the cost of advertising is buried in the price of the products that are advertised.

We pay directly for cable or DBS and various forms of packaged media — mostly music and movies. In fact, the average consumer spent $763.20 on all forms of media in 2002 (not including the hidden costs of advertising).


The TV in the family room is no longer the exclusive domain of the broadcaster; it has not been for decades. The VCR and multichannel subscription television leveraged the TVs that were once the exclusive domain of broadcasters. Even today, DVD players — perhaps the most successful product in the history of the consumer electronics industry — deliver digitally encoded programming to the venerable old analog TVs developed half a century earlier to receive television broadcasts.

A half century ago, TV came onto the scene as a challenger to Hollywood. It would be fair to say that Hollywood has now been devoured. Or to be more accurate, the world of entertainment content has converged. Today, a handful of companies control the content that we listen to and watch every day. Most of these conglomerates have tentacles into music, TV and motion pictures.

The enduring value proposition of mass media, first brought to us by broadcasters, is that it defines and reinforces popular culture. This is the factual basis for the claim that broadcasting is the most influential technology of the past century. Mass media is the closest thing we may ever see to a perpetual-motion machine. It has the ability to determine what or whom to promote and to ignore. The only power left for the consumer is to opt out.

According to mass media, one of the tactics that the illegal drug industry uses to build its business is to give its product away until it has created a dependency. When the victim is hooked, the drugs are free no more.

Is TV the “soma” that Aldous Huxley wrote about in “Brave New World”? There's little doubt that broadcasting has been a powerful precursor to the development of a mass media habit.

Where would the music industry be without radio and MTV to promote the artists who are mere “works for hire” to the big record labels? We have grown accustomed to the notion that we can record music off a radio station; apparently this is a form of promotion, rather than piracy. And it has been effective; billions of dollars are spent each year buying recorded music that is available for “free.”

Likewise, the VCR did not destroy the broadcast or motion picture business models; it enhanced them. Such is the nature of popular mass culture.

So we are compelled to ask what is so different about being “digital.”

The media conglomerates claim that the ability to make perfect digital copies is what makes digital different. Analog radio and television are impaired; they are far removed from the original program masters. They claim that digital copies do not degrade like analog copies; and now, they can be moved easily from point to point through digital networks, or copied onto a recordable CD, DVD or magnetic hard disk.

Like “free TV,” the reality is far different than the end-of-the-world scenarios being advanced by the media conglomerates. Digital content can be delivered with higher quality/fidelity than analog. It can also be worse; just look at the sometimes-poor quality of the MPEG-2-encoded video delivered by the bandwidth-constrained DBS systems.

Copy protection

Or look at the positive impact that DVDs have had on the sale of movies. Consumers are acquiring legal DVD titles at a rate that is more than double that of the pre-recorded VHS tapes they bought previously. Is this increase in sales due to improved quality, additional content or ease of use? Perhaps all of these factors are contributing to the success of the DVD. What is even more pertinent, however, is that the lightweight copy protection scheme used with DVDs appears to be adequate, despite the fact that it can be bypassed easily, with a little effort.

Next summer, it may take a little more effort to make and view legal recordings of broadcast television programs. On July 1, 2005, all new products that may come in contact with the bits from a digital television broadcast must look for and deal properly with the broadcast flag. The “flag” is more correctly called the redistribution-control descriptor, a single bit in the MPEG transport stream of a DTV broadcast that announces whether the consumer has the right to redistribute a copy of the broadcast over a digital network such as the Internet. Clearly, selling such a copy is a violation of existing copyright laws. Given the well-established precedents that allow recording television programs for personal use, why it is necessary to prevent individuals from viewing legal copies over a network that extends outside of their home?

The FCC just blessed a TiVo technology that deals with the broadcast flag. When introduced, it will allow a TiVo user to access programs on his home PVR from a remote location over the Internet. Someone with a lake house that has a broadband connection could, in theory, access his TiVo and other caches of recorded content in his home. The Motion Picture Association of America vigorously opposed this capability and has now petitioned the FCC to prohibit it.

You can buy products today that implement some of the technologies already approved by the FCC to honor the broadcast flag. Many new HDTV-capable monitors and receivers now include a DVI connection with high-definition content protection (HDCP). This allows a digital connection between a set-top box or DVD player and the display, encrypting the content as it travels across the high-speed digital bus. In addition, now, some products support the IEEE 1394 network connection with Digital Transport Control Protocol (DTCP). This allows content that has been marked for protection (e.g., using the broadcast flag), to be encrypted as it passes through the IEEE 1394 network to another trusted device that supports DTCP.

All this to protect content that hardly anyone wants to copy for redistribution. Anyone who does want to do this will find it easy because the DTV bit streams are not encrypted. There are already a large number of products in the field that do not look for the broadcast flag or attempt to prevent redistribution. And then there is the analog hole. It is trivially easy to make digital files from analog outputs. If all else fails, you can point a camcorder at that fancy new HDTV screen.

So why all the fuss about protecting digital broadcasts? As mentioned earlier, most quality content has already evolved beyond broadcast distribution. Broadcasting has become the promotional engine for the big media conglomerates. It is a necessary “feeder network” to steer consumers to the good stuff — the stuff that is free no more.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.

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