NextGen TV DRM: Let’s All Take A Deep Breath

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Digital rights management (DRM) is under the microscope in the ATSC 3.0 world—at least by a contingent of early NextGen TV adopters and pundits who fear broadcasters will use it to lock down their OTA signals, prevent viewers from digitally recording their favorite shows and yank away features like time-shifting that they have enjoyed since VHS and Betamax VCRs burst onto the market in the 1970s.

This concern centers on some early 3.0 gateway boxes that receive a NextGen TV signal and convert it for display on a legacy DTV set—not fresh out of the box NextGen TV sets with built-in 3.0 tuners. 

Perhaps, however, the consternation and hand wringing may ultimately prove to be largely irrelevant. 

On June 20, the FCC adopted its 3.0 Multicast Licensing Report and Order (“In the Matter of Authorizing Permissive Use of the ‘Next Generation’ Broadcast Television Standard”). 

In it, the commission writes: “Accordingly, we adopt a new sunset date of July 17, 2027.  Given the ongoing transition, we believe at this time that this is an appropriate sunset period.” That sunset is the new lights out date for 1.0, subject to an agency review commencing in July 2026. That means viewers can continue to receive and record legacy DTV over the air through mid-July 2017.

Consumers also can take solace in the fact that the FCC has not found “a sufficient shift in the marketplace that would justify elimination or modification of the substantially similar rule.” Presumably, in July 2026 if there hasn’t been “a sufficient shift” in the market, it will continue the requirement to preserve 1.0 service that’s essentially the same as a broadcaster’s primary 3.0 channel.

Now consider this finding from a March NPD Circana Report: “The average TV is replaced every 6.56 years in the U.S., and more than one-quarter of TVs are now at least seven years old.”

Given that the first 3.0 gateways—those without DRM support—came out in 2020, it’s fair to assume that NextGen TVs with built-in DRM support will replace many of the TVs those gateways feed today. Further it’s reasonable to assume 3.0 recorders with DRM support will become available. 

Anne Schelle, Managing Director of Pearl TV, has said as much. “Content security is designed to prevent piracy, not stop home recording,” she said. “No broadcaster has attempted to limit digital video recording capability for its ATSC 3.0 broadcasts, as far as we know. In fact A3SA’s [ATSC 3.0 Security Authority’s] compliance rules for broadcasters expressly prohibit restrictions on home recording for ATSC 1.0 signals that are simulcast now in ATSC 3.0.

“Moreover, expect content security-verified DVRs to be available to consumers by early 2024 and maybe even later this year.”

Bottom line: Now is not the time for consumers to panic, but rather to take a deep breath and let things play out. 

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.