Copy never: DRM 'glitch' keeps TiVo Series3, JVC A/V receivers from playing nice

Copy never: DRM 'glitch' keeps TiVo Series3, JVC A/V receivers from playing nice

John Falcone Senior Editorial Director, Shopping
John P. Falcone is the senior director of commerce content at CNET, where he coordinates coverage of the site's buying recommendations alongside the CNET Advice team (where he previously headed the consumer electronics reviews section). He's been a CNET editor since 2003.
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  • Self-taught tinkerer, informal IT and gadget consultant to friends and family (with several self-built gaming PCs under his belt)
John Falcone
5 min read
Connecting a to a JVC A/V receiver via HDMI seems to awaken an otherwise dormant copy-protection feature in the DVR. At least, that's what happened during testing in the CNET Labs.

We were working to verify that the TiVo delivered the full spectrum of video and audio features via its HDMI output. Video capabilities seemed fine: the Series3 includes a full panoply of user-selectable resolutions and a decent selection of aspect-ratio controls too; it also passed audio to several HDTVs when connected. But anyone who's invested in an $800 digital video recorder is likely to have an HDMI-switching A/V receiver as well, so that compatibility was high on the agenda. We used the JVC RX-D702--it's an older but still current HDMI receiver, and a CNET Editors' Choice for delivering a full range of HDMI features at a very reasonable price. Things seemed fine: we noted that the receiver passed HD video and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio without a problem. Our final test was to verify parallel video output--that the TiVo's standard-definition analog video outputs (composite, S-Video) remained up and running while the box was delivering a high-def picture via HDMI.

Why is that a big deal? Simple: The Series3 box ships with no TiVo To Go features, so you can't transfer your recorded programs to a PC or portable device as you can with earlier Series2 models. As usual, the culprit for this feature step-down is overzealous digital rights management (DRM). The underlying politics notwithstanding--and I recommend everybody check out the excellent Who killed TiVo To Go? feature at the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Web site for a complete overview of the issue--the fact remains that the only way to archive your TiVo Series3 recordings is the old-fashioned way: dump them to a video recorder in real time. Thus the importance of parallel video output. You want your VCR or DVD recorder to have access to a steady composite/S-Video source, regardless of what resolution you're watching over component or HDMI. The issue becomes doubly important if you're using a place-shifting device such as a Slingbox, a Hava, or a LocationFree TV to watch your DVR recordings from a remote location. (For instance, the older DirecTV HD TiVo switches off the composite and S-Video outputs when you watch video at HD resolutions--meaning you constantly have to throttle the resolutions down when archiving or place-shifting--a huge pain. Those outputs on current DirecTV HR20 and Dish ViP622, on the other hand, are always active.)

Our initial test was smooth: we got high-def HDMI output to the JVC receiver and the attached HDTV, and a simultaneous standard-def signal from the TiVo's S-Video and composite outputs (which we were watching on separate monitors). But when we moved onto another program--Revenge of the Sith, recorded off of HBO-HD--the screen suddenly went gray, with a TiVo warning emblazoned across the bottom: "Viewing is not permitted using the TiVo Digital Media Recorder. Try another TV input." Several other programs--Empire of the Sun (HDNet Movies), Simone (HBO-HD), and episodes of Battlestar Galactica (Universal HD) all yielded the same result. Further investigation revealed the culprit: hitting the Info button from the program listing page (TiVo's Now Playing screen) on these programs included a section called "restrictions": "Due to the policy set by the copyright holder, this recording: Cannot be transferred to VCR, DVD, or any other media device. To learn more, visit www.tivo.com/copyprotection."

Visiting that link will reveal apparent culprit: TiVo's Macrovision copy protection. Apparently, these programs were flagged as "copy never," so the box was dutifully following orders, and allowing video only via the copy-protected HDMI output (which is, to date, impossible to record). This isn't new: as far back as 2005, there were reports of TiVo boxes imposing restrictions on the viewing of certain TV shows. At the time, TiVo blamed the restrictions on "false positives"--saying the viewing restriction technology, ostensibly designed for pay-per-view and video-on-demand programming, was being turned on (by the cable companies) to cover a wider array of programming.

When we contacted TiVo about the issues we were having, a company engineer was stumped: he reiterated the same claim from last year, that the content flags should be appearing only on PPV and VOD programs. He suggested that the problem was twofold: our local cable company was "overflagging" its content, and/or the JVC receiver was not properly interpreting the copy-protection flag.

Indeed, when we took the JVC receiver out of the mix, things seemed fine: we couldn't get the gray screen to appear when using the Onkyo TX-SR674, the Belkin PureAV 3-in-1 HDMI Switch, or the Gefen 2:8 HDMI Distribution Amplifier (the only other HDMI-equipped switchers we had on hand), nor could we see it when running the TiVo directly to any of several HDTVs currently in our inventory. Likewise, returning to the JVC RX-D702B yielded the same problem. Perhaps more instructively, the newer JVC RX-D411S (which had just arrived in the CNET Labs) had the same problem when linked to the TiVo as well.

Bottom line: For whatever reason, the JVC receivers and the TiVo Series3 don't seem to be a perfect match. Otherwise, we've found the HDMI capabilities of the JVC receivers to perform admirably--the RX-D702 has been chugging away for months without any problems (and we'll have a full review of the RX-D411 soon). For that reason, we're not docking the JVC's rating (though we've added an Editors' Note explaining the apparent TiVo incompatibility). For its part, JVC wasn't aware of the TiVo incompatibility until we notified them; the company is actively investigating the issue, and we'll follow up when and if JVC issues a statement or a possible fix. In the meantime, if you own both products (and your cable company is flagging your shows), we'd recommend you opt for component video plus optical digital audio connections between the two, rather than deal with the dodgy HDMI issues.

Once again, though, overzealous copy protection has taken something simple and turned it into a Sisyphean ordeal. All we wanted to do was watch TV, and connect our gear with a minimum of cables and wires. Thanks to DRM, that simple task becomes more difficult all the time.