FCC lets movie industry selectively break your TV

The FCC grants the MPAA permission to selectively disable certain outputs on your TV so that it can deliver you movies at home earlier. Thanks, but I think I'd rather go to Redbox.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
4 min read

How badly do you want to see new movies in your home close to the date they're released in theaters? Badly enough to let the movie industry reach through your front door and break your TV? Well, good news for you.

The Federal Communications Commission decided on Friday that the movie industry can remotely disable analog video outputs on your home theater equipment to prevent you from recording certain programs--namely, first-run movies available on demand before DVDs are released or while they're still in theaters.

The FCC ruled that it's "in the public interest" (PDF) to give the Motion Picture Association of America so-called selectable output controls, and that it will help enable the "new business model" of delivering on-demand movies closer to the theatrical release date.

Hey, man, leave me out of it! Sarah Tew/CNET
Previously, the FCC banned selectable output controls because of concerns that some people wouldn't be able to receive certain high-definition content (HD copy protection, built into HDMI cables, isn't available over analog connections like composite or component).

In 2008, the movie industry asked for a waiver on that ban that would have prevented on-demand, early-release movies from being recorded on DVRs and viewed at all on older HDTVs that lacked digital connections.

Happily, the FCC didn't give the MPAA everything it wanted. It dryly notes in its order (PDF) that "the breadth of the waiver requested by MPAA exceeds the protections necessary to guard against illegal copying of content." The limited waiver it did grant says the industry can only selectively block analog inputs, a waiver can last only 90 days, and the FCC will have to review all waivers before they're granted.

The problem for consumers, of course, is that millions of HDTVs have no digital inputs, and owners of those televisions wouldn't be able to watch any of these early-release movies at all without buying new TVs. Advocacy organization Public Knowledge noted that some people might actually buy the on-demand movies without realizing that they won't play, a charge to which Sony essentially responded, "call the FCC if that happens." Nice.

There's also, of course, the slippery-slope argument that if you give the movie industry an inch, it will take a mile--granted, it already tried to take a mile and was only granted an inch, but the precedent of allowing the movie industry to literally remotely disable portions of your home entertainment equipment is seriously disturbing.

As the Consumer Electronics Association said in a statement, "We are unsure when the FCC has ever before given private entities the right to disable consumers' products in their homes. The fact that the motion picture studios want to create a new business model does not mean that functioning products should be disabled by them. The decision is not in the public interest and harms the very consumers that the commission is in place to protect."

And then, of course, there's the argument so very well articulated by my colleague, CNET Senior Editor John Falcone:

"Nobody hooks a VCR or DVD recorder to a DVD player and hits 'record.' They just rip the DVD on their PC and upload via BitTorrent. Shutting off the composite video output solves nothing."

Sadly, the FCC noted that it felt it had to approve the limited SOC (selectable output control) waiver because otherwise, the "service will not be offered at all." Though I can appreciate that dilemma, I still wonder whether so many people are interested in early-release movies that they're willing to allow selective crippling of their TVs (or willing to buy new TVs just to accommodate these new-release windows), and whether this is the kind of thing that simply infuriates consumers while doing little to nothing to combat wide-scale piracy.

In a statement, Bob Pisano, president and interim CEO of the MPAA, said the move would give consumers "far greater access to see recent high-definition movies in their homes" and would help the industry "respond to growing consumer demand" for early-release on-demand movies.

If people want these movies so badly, isn't it possible that piracy of movies in the early days of their release could be diminished simply by making them available sooner? Isn't it possible that the very existence of artificial release windows--designed to keep DVD sales humming along nicely--is contributing to piracy way more than the analog hole ever has? Over and over, we've seen that if an industry makes a digital product available at a fair price, people buy it.

Given all the ways pirates have to find and distribute movies illegally (like the actual DVDs), I find it hard to believe that releasing movies on demand earlier without technology-crippling restrictions could possibly result in a measurable increase in piracy. And even if it did, I think it would be more than matched by the on-demand rental revenue the industry would reap.

Offer people more choices, when it comes to buying your product, and they'll pay for the product. Give them crippled, halfhearted stabs at meeting "consumer demand" by extracting devil's bargains and imposing invasive technologies, and they'll probably keep pirating. Just a guess.

By the way, I encourage you all to read the FCC ruling (PDF) in its entirety so you can savor the breathtaking boldness of what the MPAA originally asked for--including waivers so broadly defined, they could "come to embrace the entire life of a movie or program" (meaning you could never record a movie, even once it had gone into permanent TBS rotation). You know, in case you had any doubts about whether they really have the interests of the consumer in mind.