Television fans accustomed to recording shows and watching them later are still trying to make sense of the Federal Communications Commission's Nov. 4 ruling, which says digital TV sets built after July 2005 will need to include an anti-piracy system called a broadcast flag, meant to keep high-definition digital broadcasts from instantly becoming Internet bootlegs. Broadcast-flag technology works like this: Digital TV signals that are broadcast over the air, rather than transmitted via cable or satellite, will include an invisible data tag—the broadcast flag—along with the picture and sound. By FCC fiat, any digital TV tuner built after July 1, 2005, must refuse to allow broadcast-flagged programs to be recorded in such a way that they can be redistributed in their high-definition format. You'll be able to record Letterman tonight and watch him tomorrow but you won't be able to e-mail a copy to your friends.
People have been taping and sharing TV shows for years, so why should the FCC care now? Chairman Michael Powell hopes to clear America's airwaves by pushing TV broadcasters from analog to digital, which uses scarce bandwidth much more efficiently. But Hollywood moguls who make the shows broadcasters want to carry have been reluctant to let them be sent through the air in HDTV format. It's a reasonable fear: A digital TV broadcast can be easily grabbed and saved to disk as a perfect copy of the original, which alarms the studios that produce the shows. Unless the broadcasters have a way to protect content, they won't be able to license or purchase shows, and if they don't have access to the shows, they won't be able to compete with cable and the satellite-TV folks.
But never mind the industry gossip. How will the broadcast flag affect your viewing? It'll be an annoyance for some, but it's not the end of the world some tech reporters predicted. Instead, it's more like the Big Four networks' last stand against their competitors.
Here are the FAQs:
Will the broadcast flag break my TiVo?
No. The FCC's ruling specifically requires that current consumer gear not be disabled by the broadcast flag. If you use TiVo or ReplayTV now, and you can figure out how to wire an analog line from a future digital TV tuner to your current personal video recorder (the required adapters will be selling like hotcakes), you'll still be able to record and play shows as usual. The trade-off is that your recordings won't be in the new high-definition format—they'll be converted to the same analog-signal-quality your TiVo now records.
What about the new high-definition digital recorders? Will they allow me to time-shift shows, skip commercials, or pause live broadcasts?
Yes. One of the biggest myths about the broadcast flag is that TV networks are pushing the flag to end time-shifting and to force viewers to watch the commercials. In reality, the flag's purpose is to stop file-sharing, not time-shifting. ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, want to protect their audience-share by offering programming that's as good as what's on HBO without having it go straight to KaZaA.
Will I be able to trade high-definition episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond with other people?
No. That's exactly what the broadcast flag aims to stop and why CBS briefly threatened to stop broadcasting in high-definition format without it. * But you'll still be able to make and trade lower-resolution recordings if you keep the gear you use today. That's the surprising loophole in the broadcast-flag scheme: Copyright holders seem willing to put up with bootlegs on the Net, as long as they aren't bit-for-bit high-definition copies. The flag isn't so much a roadblock as a speed bump.
Is it true the new video recorders won't be compatible with my existing DVD player?
Yes. The copy-protection scheme for broadcast-flag shows will require a different data format that isn't backwards-compatible with the current standard. A show recorded on a 2006 digital video recorder won't play on older DVD players. Hopefully new DVD players will be rejigged to accommodate the broadcast flag so you can record a show in your living room and play it in your bedroom, but it's not yet clear how (or whether) that will work.
Isn't that kind of annoying?
Absolutely. It's a good example of the problem with anti-piracy mechanisms: They often disrupt perfectly legal viewing habits as a side effect. For example, the Macrovision copy protection on all new VHS players, mandated by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1999, sometimes scrambles rental tapes that, in theory, it should play normally.
I get my television via cable or satellite. Does the broadcast flag apply to me?
No. Cable and satellite are regulated separately from traditional through-the-air broadcasts, so your set-top box won't be watching for the flag. Cable-satellite copy-protection mechanisms are negotiated individually between the maker of your television's tuner, such as Sony, and the content providers, such as Time Warner.
But if you're a cable-viewer seeking an excuse to fume at the Feds, take heart. The FCC has mandated that all televisions of more than 13 inches must include a digital tuner by 2007. You'll have to pay an extra couple of hundred bucks for one in your next set, even though you'll never use it.
Is there any TV gear I should stock up on before it's illegal?
Yes. Buy a high-definition TV tuner-card for your PC before July 2005. After that you may only be able to get a crippled one, and these new cards will capture, record, and play digital broadcasts in lower resolutions. The reason for the ruling: If TV broadcasters start sending movies such as Finding Nemo over the air in high definition, it will be too easy for any techie to set up a PC that automatically uploads perfect copies to the Net.
Won't that happen anyway?
Where can I read the details of the broadcast-flag ruling online?
The FCC's full report and order are available in both Word and PDF format but might be hard to grok. If it's too geeky, the Center for Democracy and Technology has posted a broadcast-flag primer that translates government-speak into English.
Webhead thanks Seth Schoen of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Jeffrey Joseph of the Consumer Electronics Association.
Correction, Dec. 8, 2003: This article originally said that broadcasters were waiting until the flag was in place before switching to the digital format. Although it's true that the networks won't consider switching to exclusively digital broadcasting until the flag is in place, networks are not waiting for the flag to commence digital broadcasting. Much of the major networks' programming is already available in high-definition digital format. (Return to corrected sentence.)