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Hollywood's HD sneak attack

Copyright, probably Hollywood's biggest fixation, hasn't as yet gotten the press in the digital era that other issues have received. It is a topic of gargantuan proportion at the studios and among producers, and it is slowly becoming an issue that will affect the entire television industry.

Hollywood has settled, for the time being, on HDTV as a distribution standard to theatres. There is no question that 35mm film is capable of better quality than what HDTV has to offer. However, the argument has been made from a financial standpoint that if in the estimation of consumers HD is of roughly the same quality as 35mm film and costs less, it is still a viable alternative.

This is an important topic to broadcasters, but for different reasons.

At first blush there doesn't seem to be a problem with carrying movies on cable or satellite. However, in negotiations over the past few months the studios have been pressuring the cable and satellite companies to decrease the resolution of high-definition digital video, lowering the quality of service (QoS) so there is less incentive for the consumer to copy it. Studios defend their actions in the name of “copyright protection.”

Hollywood executives and producers see the exchange of music on the Internet as a pattern that relates to their industry as well. Most motion picture studios have strong ties with the music recording industry and their fears of digital-content swapping were not alleviated with Napster's agreement to start charging for music downloaded online. If anything, the horror of copyrighted music being spread freely around the world via the Internet has fueled fears among movie executives, who see digital video as next in line.

Hollywood is taking no chances. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represents the Hollywood studios, is waging a quiet war in negotiations with distributors of its products to prevent the “Napsterization” of digital video and the perceived ruination of their multibillion-dollar industry.

It is important to think of the implications that this whole issue generates. People who pay from $3000 to $15,000 for a digital TV expect to see every pixel their set is capable of displaying and, should they choose, be able to delay watching the programs by recording them on their digital VCR.

“There is no technology other than downresing to protect it from being copied and retransmitted on the Internet.”

The Supreme Court decided the personal use recording issue in 1984 when it ruled in favor of the consumer in Sony vs. Universal Studios. Now, the MPAA would have us all turn back the clock and revisit these issues. “There is no technology other than downresing [reducing resolution] to protect it from being copied and retransmitted on the Internet,” says MPAA vice-president Fritz Attaway.

“Downresing” is nothing new. One Hollywood engineer recalls “At the O&O [network owned and operated station] where I worked back in the 1980s, just after installing our new second generation color cameras, we were told to cut back on the resolution because the new equipment showed up all the imperfections on the face of one of the high-priced news anchors when makeup wasn't able to easily cover them.”

Michael Petricone, general counsel for the Consumer Electronics Association countered, “They aren't trying to preserve, but to cut back the rights consumers have had for 20 years to record video — so as to make even more money.” Jim Burger, attorney with the Washington media law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, said, “The idea that improvements in technology have to stop so that Hollywood doesn't have to change its business model is crazy. Looking for perfect protection in the digital age will put you in a loony bin. What they should be looking for is a reasonable balance between making money and making life easier and better.”

The MPAA dipped into its bag of statistics saying Hollywood loses $250 million annually in the U.S. due to video piracy and the figure is $2.5 billion a year, world wide. MPAA also claims digital technology will permit video pirates to make pristine copies even down several generations because picture quality doesn't degrade with each copy made as it does with traditional videocassettes.

Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA.), recently commented that “The public is going to be pretty incensed that the quality of programming they were promised isn't delivered.”

Despite all this, Hollywood has gotten the ears of at least twelve Capitol Hill lawmakers who as recently as this March, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell asking for his support on the digital TV copy issues that would restrict otherwise free over-the-air content.

The two-page document has some rather familiar signatures: Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-LA), chair of the powerful House Commerce Committee, and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. John Breaux (D-LA), Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), and all members of the House or Senate Commerce Committees.

Lawmakers have said that without copy protection, the foundations of over-the-air broadcast would be threatened, since content providers would be reluctant to sell to broadcasters, turning to cable instead, which is based on paid subscription.

“Congress has a long-standing commitment to free, over-the-air television,” the letter stated. “And for good reason: Millions of American households, particularly those that cannot afford subscription-based services like cable and satellite, continue to rely on free-over-the-air television for their entertainment and news information.”

Despite this, Powell has strongly intimated that the issue of copy protection should be resolved on Capitol Hill and not by the FCC.

In what appears to be an important victory for the entertainment industry, both Disney and Fox have argued that it is not enough to only protect cable programming. The dichotomy is that most of the studios also have serious, deep-rooted interests in television, owning entire networks, not to mention a significant number of television stations. Not all Tinsel Town executives are singing the same song, however. Sony and Warner Bros. have indicated they would accept copy protection that covered cable programming and not broadcast.

Where does this leave us? Despite the millions of dollars each television station has or will have to invest in the digital television rollout, until these and other issues are resolved, TV set manufacturers will remain in limbo because there is no licensing agreement in place.