Microsoft denies Windows Media blocks digital broadcasts

Reason Windows Media Center users were prevented from recording <i>American Gladiators</i> remains mystery as both Microsoft and NBC Universal deny responsibility.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read

Microsoft says that there isn't anything in Windows Vista Media Center that would have stopped users from recording two NBC Universal shows earlier this month.

Microsoft said in an e-mail to CNET News.com on Wednesday that Media Center honors flags sent to protect against the recording of pay-per-view channels or video on demand (VOD). The company said that it doesn't prevent the recording of over-the-air digital or QAM digital broadcasts.

"Windows Media Center currently supports and adheres to CGMS-A," a Microsoft spokeswoman said in the e-mail. "Content distributors use CGMS-A in very limited circumstances, such as to protect programs intended for video on demand. Please note that Windows Media Center does not support Broadcast Flag, sometimes referred to as Digital Broadcast Television Redistribution Control, on ATSC and clear QAM."

A controversy began on May 12, when people who attempted to use Windows Vista Media Center to record digital broadcasts of NBC Universal shows American Gladiators and Medium received a message saying the copyright holder had blocked recording of the shows.

This isn't supposed to happen. Television viewers have the right to record shows (that aren't pay per view or video on demand) for personal use. NBC Universal later acknowledged that it accidentally flagged the shows, but what irked some Vista users is that the block couldn't have been carried out unless Windows adhered to the flag.

NBC Universal also said Wednesday that it had discovered that the flag it sent out was CGMS-A.

"It was a CGMS-A flag, not a broadcast flag, that was inadvertently set on those programs," wrote an NBC spokeswoman. "We're not aware of any other issues since then, and the flags were simply mistakes, not a change in policy here."

So where does this leave us? Right back to where we started, with a major media company and the world's premiere software maker denying blame. On the bright side, if you can call it that, the situation has illuminated just how much control over home recording broadcasters have as the country moves from analogue to digital broadcasting.

"This shows the dangers of having these technologies baked into your devices," said someone who deals with such issues and who asked for anonymity due to potential dealings with the companies involved.

Microsoft's response comes a week after saying it had built technology into Vista that adhered to "flags used by broadcasters" that allowed them to "determine how their content is distributed and consumed."

This set off warning bells to some because it looked like Microsoft was obeying an FCC proposal that would have required software and hardware makers honor restrictions on recording digital broadcasts--or flags--issued by TV networks. The courts threw out the FCC's plan in 2005 so Microsoft wasn't required to adhere to such restrictions.

More than a week later, Microsoft says what it meant was that Vista Media Centers adheres to flags for analog broadcasts. CGMS-A is copy protection for analog TV signals and they aren't supposed to be able to block digital signals. But If nothing in Windows Media Centers was designed to block digital broadcasts and NBC Universal never sent a flag to block digital recording, then how were the shows blocked?

Is there a glitch that Microsoft doesn't know about that can be triggered by a CGMS-A flag that prevents the recording of digital broadcasts? Why has Microsoft chosen to adhere to CGMS-A flags?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation isn't waiting for NBC Universal or Microsoft to hand over information. The group that advocates for Internet users has has begun looking for the causes of the block and has asked for help from Vista users to shed light on what's happening.

EFF staffer Danny O'Brien wrote on the group's blog:"We're looking to obtain raw data dumps of the ATSC stream next time your copy of Vista chokes on an over-the-air digital TV feed."