Was that 'Robust' or 'Go Bust?'

You might not have noticed that, if you want recent commercial-free movies on video, there are better places to look than broadcast TV. Oh, heck, what am I talking about? I mean -- you'd have to have been in a media-free cave for the last 25 years or so not to have heard of HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, and other stuff like that there.

I ain't even going to mention VHS tapes and DVDs. So I wonder what cave the writers of the "broadcast flag" order for Our Beloved Commish (a/k/a the FCC) crawled out of.

Hey -- allow me to be among the very first five billion folks to admit that there's maybe a digital-piracy problem. If you ain't been in a media-free cave recently, you've probably heard about the controversy over the banning of "screeners," those VHS tapes and DVDs that movie producers send to folks so they'll get awards and good reviews.

Jack "What, Me Age?" Valenti, Lord Chief High Hoo-Hah of the Motion Picture Association, decreed that screeners were verboten this year. That made independent producers, who rely on the screeners more than the major studios, to haul the MPAA to court, where the latter lost. The MPAA said they'd appeal the ruling. As Nellie the Neuron directs my digits trippingly over the keyboard this lunar cycle (sometime in the last millennium, methinks), that's as far as things have gotten.


I ain't going to pick sides on this one. It looks to Nellie like the independent producers have a good point, but Jack does, too. I know this latter point for a fact on account of a recent survey of pirated movies on the Internet. Most of them started with a "For Your Consideration" title. That's what screeners say. Home stuff starts with an FBI warning.

So Point One of the New Year is professionals leak movies to the Internet, not Joan D. Viewer. For Point Two, we move to the Internet, itself, where a "Slate" article in November said about the broadcast flag that "the major networks will wait until the restriction is in place before making the switch to digital broadcasting."

Okay, so maybe they got it a wee mite wrong. But the point that there's some great impediment to the forward motion of digital TV that will be lifted once the flag is raised has been made over and over again by folks at CBS and Fox. CBS even threatened to cease HDTV broadcasts unless the flag was flying.

Now then, maybe you think this broadcast flag is something like the old NTSC pennant. It ain't. It's just a retransmission consent descriptor. No harm there. But the order Our Beloved Commish wrote about when to waive the flag is quite a piece of work.

Item one: Analog outputs are perfectly acceptable whether the flag is raised or not. That includes analog HDTV outputs.

Maybe you're inclined to think this is not a big problem on account of few consumers having high-bandwidth A-to-D converters and bitrate-reduction schemes. Maybe you ain't heard of the consumer HDV camcorders. Smash the lens and imaging chips off the front of one, and you've got a lovely HDTV A-to-D and bitrate-reduction scheme.

Anyhow, even that's not so necessary on account of item two: SDTV digital outputs are okay whether the flag is raised or not. Gee! Last time I checked, every single DVD was SDTV, but that's what Uncle Jack banned as screeners. So whatever was causing problems for the movie industry can continue to do so under a raised flag.


"But, Mario, what can't you do under the flag order?"

I'm glad you asked. You can't have a digital output unless it's been authorized. What's been authorized? Not a blessed thing (and not a cursed thing either)-at least not in the order. The order tells you how to go about trying to get your scheme (like, maybe, FireWire with 5C or DVI with HDCP) authorized. It also gives instructions to nay-sayers (like Philips) about how to try to put the kibosh on someone else's scheme. Oh, yeah, and once a scheme gets authorized, that doesn't mean it's authorized forever.

You also can't have a recording system unless it's been authorized, too, (See above). Void where prohibited. Some restrictions apply. Batteries not included. Just kidding about that last one (methinks).

Anyhow, that's not the really bad stuff. Thanks to the authorized analog outputs and SDTV digital outputs, there ain't a whole heck of a lot of harm the flag order is doing to consumers-unless they feel like buying new equipment or maybe watching retransmitted HDTV via satellite.

I don't want to step on Doug Lung's toes and get into RF, but have you ever checked the form of modulation used for digital satellite transmissions? Maybe it's BPSK. Maybe it's QPSK. Maybe it's even 8-PSK. But, whatever it is, it's PSK.

Now then, you or I might dare to refer to cable and satellite as cable and satellite. But that's not clear enough for Our Beloved Commish. They prefer to call cable and satellite "multichannel video programming distributors," or MVPDs, pronounced MVPDs.

According to the broadcast-flag order, an MVPD that's retransmitting flagged programming must do so via 8-VSB, 16-VSB, 64-QAM, or 256-QAM. That's it-end of story. Did you happen to maybe notice a wee PSK hidden somewhere in those four modulation methods? Me, neither.

Hey-I don't want to act like a Democratic presidential candidate here and be picky. I ain't got any doubt that by the time some satellite service decides it's time to carry earthbound digital-TV broadcasts, Our Beloved Commish will amend the order to allow PSK. The consumer equipment stuff is much, much worse.

Ever busted open a digital-TV receiver? Here's what's usually in it: There's an incoming feed to a tuner. The tuner feeds an 8-VSB demod. The 8-VSB demod feeds an MPEG-2 decoder and maybe a FireWire spigot via a content-protection chip. The MPEG-2 decoder maybe feeds a DVI or HDMI spigot via a content-protection chip and maybe it feeds a display. If there's DVI or HDMI, then, at the display there's another content-protection chip that squirts out digital video before it hits the video amps.

Simple, eh? It is. And the broadcast-flag order thinks it's too simple. There's a "robustness" requirement.

Everything up to the 8-VSB demod is okay on account of it's got the flag, raised or not. But the 8-VSB demod out ain't acceptable. It's unprotected digital video (Oh, horror!). So is the output of the MPEG-2 decoder.

Is an average consumer ever going to get at the output of the 8-VSB decoder chip? The order says we've got to assume that Jane D. Viewer has (and knows how to use) a screwdriver and other tools, clip leads, a soldering iron, an EEPROM burner, a debugger, and a plutonium zeta-ray gun. Okay, I'm kidding about the last one (methinks). The others are all listed in the order.

So, according to the order, there can no longer be an accessible output of an 8-VSB demod. Chip fabs that are good at RF but know nothing about bitrate reduction need to include MPEG-2 decoders in their 8-VSB demods. Chip fabs that are good at decoders but ain't got a clue about RF need to add 8-VSB demods to their MPEG-2 decoders. Or the whole thing needs to be potted in impervious epoxy. That goes for the outputs of those DVI and HDMI protection chips in displays, too.

"But, Mario, that just means everyone's got to increase their robustness, right?"

Wrong. It ain't everyone. If you've got a satellite service, and you don't carry local flagged broadcasts, you don't need to abide by the robustness rules. You can deliver HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, and pay-per-view in HDTV through a cheap box that Jane D. can hook up to the Internet in no time flat, sending movies to all her friends. So, the satellite biz, which ain't been complaining that it needs a flag, can go right on doing what it's always been doing.

Meanwhile, back in broadcast land, the maker of a $50 VCR or a $75 13-inch TV set is faced with a choice: either digital reception with broadcast-flag protection and robustness gets added so that (heaven forbid!) no one will ever be able to illegally retransmit a presidential press conference on the Internet (Our Beloved Commish declined to exempt public-domain programming from the flag), or the NTSC tuner gets pulled, freeing the device from flag and 8-VSB rules.

Heck, if you've got a satellite box or even a cable box, you've got baseband audio and video connections, so who needs a tuner? The only folks who need tuners are the ones relying on the off-air reception the flag is intended to protect.

Hey! I think I've got it! If there ain't any off-air transmissions, then no off-air programming can ever be stolen. Sleep well, broadcasters.