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The Broadcast Flag: Long May It Waver

You might not have noticed that the Internet is different from a light-bulb joke. Nah, you probably have noticed that, and you probably know it's not still 1976, too. Too bad CBS doesn't seem to have noticed either.

I mean this is the classic form of the light-bulb joke: How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to hold the bulb and four to turn the ladder. The joke is that the answer is more than one.

Okay, now let me switch to the Internet. How many people does it take to post something to the Internet so that millions of people worldwide can get it? One.

Light-bulb joke? More than one. Internet posting? One. It seems clear enough to me.

So CBS sends its comments on the "broadcast flag" to Our Beloved Commish (aka the FCC). The broadcast flag is a bit in the DTV stream. One way, it says the material is restricted from Internet redistribution; the other way, it ain't.

Hands up from those of you who expect there will ever be a DTV master-control facility where a person will turn the broadcast flag off and on. No, I didn't think so, either. If there's a broadcast flag, it stays on full time.

Anyhow, there are factions in favor of the flag (program producers) and factions opposed (just about everyone else, judging the filings by weight or quantity). CBS (which owns Paramount) could be expected to be in the flag-waving group. I ain't got any problem with that. But they went a little further in their filing.

"If a broadcast flag is not implemented and enforced by summer 2003, Viacom's CBS Television Network will not provide any programming in high definition for the 2003-2004 television season. Viacom believes that DTV sales and broadband subscriptions have reached the 'tipping point' at which it can no longer afford to expose its content to piracy. A broadcast flag regime is needed now to protect the value of our important assets or we must withhold our quality HD digital content."

Whoa! Those are fighting words, methinks.

Allow me to ignore the fact that nothing is going to be "implemented and enforced" within the next six months. Is Our Beloved Commish supposed to repossess every existing DTV receiver?

Possibility Number One: CBS, which claimed it was actually making money on its HDTV programming, is willing to give that up for fear that someone besides the half-million-or-more folks that already own DTV receivers that ain't got any restrictions on them (plus all the folks who'll buy the ones that get sold between now and when the broadcast flag does something, plus all the folks getting HD via cable, plus anyone getting HD outside the U.S., plus anyone who bothers to hack the broadcast flag, plus any folks who might buy HD camcorders to shoot off the screen) might someday post something to the Internet and no one will ever watch anything on CBS again.

Possibility Number Two: CBS is tired of dealing with HD, and this is a good excuse to dump it.

Possibility Number Three: CBS is rattling its chains to make much sound and fury, signifying nothing except maybe a future bargaining chip.

Possibility Number Four: CBS ain't got a clue.

Hands up anyone who believes Possibility Number One. I didn't think so. Geez, not even any CBS hands.

"But, Mario, you said something about 1976."

So I did. This ain't the first time program producers have tried to stop new technologies from copying their stuff.


Way back in 1976, one score and seven years ago [Egad! There could be engineering managers out there who weren't even born yet!] Sony brought forth on this continent a new notion, conceived in the liberty that folks ought to be able to record things off the air. It was called Betamax, which is how Betacam (which originally used the same tape) got its name. Someday maybe I'll tell you why Betacam is otherwise the wrong name (it has to do with what beta means in Japanese).

Betamax wasn't the first home video format, just the first that caught on. More important, it came with an ad campaign telling folks to record off-air, something Disney and Universal frowned on with a sufficiency that took them all the way up the suing ladder until The Supremes decided in 1984 that, yes, indeed, the U.S. Constitution gives folks the right to record stuff off-air at home.

It was a good thing, too. Without home video, Disney and Universal might be out of business today. Paramount makes a fair bit of change out of home video, too. I wonder if anyone's mentioned that to CBS recently.

Anyhow, you already knew the Internet was different from a light-bulb joke, and you already knew it ain't still 1976. Now here's maybe something you didn't already know.

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is one of this season's blockbuster hits. Yes, I know you already know that. It's raking in a few hundred bazillions for Warner Bros. I figure you've got an inkling of that, too, whatever an inkling is (someone who lives in ink?). But you might not have noticed that "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" was available on the Internet at least one whole week before the movie opened in theaters. Pirated VHS tapes, DVDs, and even Video CDs were available, too.

Naturally, the Warner Bros. legal eagles flew off against the pirates, and my heartfelt wishes were with them. Hey-I'm a "content producer." I live on the occasional quarter-teaspoon of gruel that my kindhearted boss here at TV Technology sometimes deigns to allow me to beg for. If some pirate were to steal my stuff and sell it to a competing fish wrap, I might starve. So I'm all in favor of intellectual property rights and throwing the book at pirates (especially if it's a heavy book with poisoned spikes sticking out-look, I like gruel).

If CBS wants Congress to pass a law making first-degree piracy punishable by six consecutive life sentences of hard labor, they ain't going to get any grief from me. But that ain't what CBS is asking for.

They're asking for stuff that'll just slow down the whole DTV transition even more than its current snail's pace to maybe the pace of a snail traveling uphill on a greased waterfall. And that ain't to mention how it'll affect home video recording, TiVos, and stuff like that there.

Meanwhile, I can't help but notice that Warner Bros., the folks that were hit big by piracy, didn't make any such threats to Our Beloved Commish. The WB is adding HD programming; they ain't threatening to remove it.

There ain't any technological solution to stopping crimeany crime. You can have all the surveillance cameras you want. If a million folks suddenly decide everything in stores is free for the taking, then the stores will get cleaned out.

The stores don't get cleaned out on account of folks being taught that stealing is wrong. The example of a few thieves in jail probably doesn't hurt either.

I'm all in favor of teaching folks that piracy is wrong. I'm all in favor of going after the pirates and even their recipients.

But, when you go to buy a banana, the produce manager doesn't open a safe to reach in and hand you one. At the most-expensive jewelry store, they don't leave wires attached to the necklace when you try it on.

There's been a bunch of talk lately about rigging up digital-cinema projectors so that when someone tries to shoot a movie off a screen with a camcorder, a big "STOLEN" or something like that appears on the pirated copy. It's a nifty idea, and it's probably keeping a few engineers from starving, but I'd just like to point out once again, in case you missed it the first time, that the latest Harry Potter movie appeared on the Internet a week before it opened in theaters.

Down with pirates! And down with nuisance ideas from those who think a broadcast flag has a snowball's chance in hell of stopping piracy.