Watching my neighbors watch on-demand television.

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June 1 2007 4:11 PM

Other People's Porn

Watching my neighbors watch on-demand television.

(Continued from Page 1)

If you don't have a cable box but do subscribe to cable, you can usually receive some digital cable if your television or TV receiver has built-in QAM support. A standalone QAM tuner, however, will let you tune in only unencrypted digital channels.

Which digital channels are unencrypted? Most cable companies don't encrypt the digital signals that they pick up from local broadcasters. That explains why I get the HD versions of Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC, CW, and PBS. My tuner also fields unencrypted digital channels that aren't broadcast in HD, like the local NBC affiliate's 24-hour weather radar and a music-video channel called The Tube. Cable companies encrypt premium channels like HBO, ESPN-HD, and BBC America to prevent nonsubscribers from getting a free ride. The reason I can watch all that hot on-demand stuff is because Comcast doesn't encrypt it.

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Here's how VOD works: If you want to watch an old Sopranos episode, you click a button that tells your set-top box to transmit a message to a server at the local cable facility. The box receives a message back from the server identifying the frequency—say, channel 86-4—where the stream will start playing. Only this particular cable box gets the message about the frequency, but the show itself still gets transmitted to other people in your service area. According to Comcast, each of its cable "nodes" serves roughly 450 houses. So, when Joe Blow dials up Episode 67 of The Sopranos, the signal goes to 449 of his neighbors. They could watch along if the cable company doesn't encrypt the show  (which Comcast doesn't here in D.C.), they know what channel to flip to, and they have a QAM tuner. If someone in my node makes an on-demand request for The Sopranos, all I have to do is scroll around in the upper-80s region of my tuner, and I'll find it.

Here's a taste of what on-demand subscribers in my neighborhood watched during two recent one-hour sampling periods: an old episode of Scooby-Doo, several episodes of The Office, a Cinemax women-in-prison movie that was hard to follow plotwise thanks to the fast-forwarding, The Da Vinci Code, another soft-core movie (frequently fast-forwarded to the dirty parts) that focused on the salutary effects of bubble baths, an exercise show ("let's circle the rib cage up to the right"), a scare-movie channel called FEARnet, the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Something's Gotta Give, Just Like Heaven, The Break-Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Children of Men, Borat, The Wicker Man (Nicolas Cage version), The Queen, The Good Shepherd, Deja Vu, Derailed, ATL, and episodes of the HBO series Big Love, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Real Time With Bill Maher, and Da Ali G Show.

Comcast insists that it scrambles all pay-per-view adult movies—that encompasses hard-core titles like Exxxtasy Island and Co-Ed Nymphos 31 (both cost $11.99 to order). According to a Comcast spokesperson, the company has "begun to scramble VOD channels and is working toward scrambling all of our content on VOD in the future." The company's spokespeople also want me to tell you that its customers' privacy is not under siege—that it's impossible for QAM users to identify who requested the VOD content they're watching. (I should make it clear that I don't mean to single out Comcast. They just happen to be my cable provider. An acquaintance of mine who gets Time Warner Cable filches on-demand movies, too. According to Internet forums, most cable companies occasionally provide unencrypted content that QAM users can grab.)

Why doesn't Comcast encrypt all of its VOD streams? Again according to a spokesperson, it's not that it's more technically challenging than encrypting a regular channel. Rather, it's an issue of volume: Comcast has 9,000 programs in its VOD system each month, and that's a lot of stuff to scramble. Encryption also can't be implemented by fiat from corporate headquarters—it has to be done market–by-market at each local cable facility.

Perhaps the main reason cable companies haven't bothered to close the QAM loophole is that so few people know or care about it. Ken Holsgrove, an audio/video consultant and the lead moderator of the HDTV sections on AVS Forum, says there are three barriers to entry for the wannabe on-demand swiper. First, you have to know what a QAM tuner is. (That eliminates roughly 100 percent of the U.S. population.) Second, you have to buy either a standalone QAM tuner (mine cost $170) or a TV with built-in QAM. Third, as cable companies add channels to their lineups, they tend to change QAM channel designations—the on-demand stream that appears on 86-4 today could be on a different channel tomorrow. In order to keep up with this movement, QAM users must rescan their channel lineup frequently. How many people have the patience to do that?

Besides, Holsgrove argues, it isn't that satisfying to watch secondhand on-demand. "The odds of you actually seeing a movie from beginning to end are virtually impossible to predict," he says. "That's stabbing an avid TV viewer right through the eyeball."

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