High Def Meets The Tone Def

Francis Vale

The HDTV anti-piracy wars have finally and totally screwed us. Back in December 2002 Viacom Inc., the parent of the CBS network and Paramount pictures, bluntly told the FCC that unless the Feds mandated anti-piracy technologies by the summer of 2003 it was yanking most of its High-Def prime time programs and many sports broadcasts from the public airwaves and putting them on “more secure” cable and satellite services.

It seems that Viacom and its broadcasting counterparts, of which there are about four left in the known universe, and that number's dwindling with each Murdoch-black-hole gobbling day, are deathly afraid of the Internet. The broadcasters want to be sure that their nearly 20 megabit/second digital picture shows don't illegally get retransmitted over your 56 KB/s dial up modem. Or if you are truly blessed, over your Internet cable box that on a good day without solar flares may make it up to a breathtaking 500 KB/s, and most of that is now eaten up by spam. With this kind of cutting edge Internet technology, what broadcast exec wouldn't have sleepless HDTV nights?

Viacom wants a “broadcast flag” that would block Internet retransmission of HDTV content. But don't be fooled. Once the flag is finally up the consumer impalement pole, the game is over for fair use copying. In short order, this flatulent flag will be used to selectively block broadcasts from being copied onto your HDTV-ready VCRs, PVRs, Blue Ray DVD's, etc. No more show shifting for you, Bunky. Now you will have to suffer through all those truly entertaining commercials that you have been happily skipping over.

But if Viacom and friends actually did yank their high-def programming off the airwaves this summer and we were all left with only cable or satellite feeds, there would be nothing for you to see.   Both of these industry groups, especially the cable guys, are completely clueless about HDTV.   RCN, et al, have made some big noises lately about HDTV being imminently available. But when you call them to find out exactly when this new service will be switched on, their answer is a vague, yeh, sure, well maybe sometime soon, but hey we're working on it. In other words, don't hold your breath.

So if high-def cable won't be ready for prime time any time soon, then why is Viacom huffing, puffing, and bluffing about yanking its gazillion dollar-to-build HDTV service off the airwaves and putting it on to something that doesn't even exist yet? Ah, hello, Mr. Son of Colin Powell FCC Chairman, maybe you still don't get this consumer extortion picture? Or perhaps he does, which is why Powell The Younger is still so fervidly backing new FCC regulations, despite all the popular and congressional uproar, that will let a single broadcaster gobble up just about every TV station in a big city, not too mention make a monopolist land grab for that city's newspapers as well.

According to FCC's visionary Powell, the glorious Internet will make TV broadcasters obsolete, including, presumably, cable and satellite services. Maybe that will happen in South Korea, where today almost anyone can get 40 megabit second broadband service for about $40 a month. (Maybe AWOL Time Warner can go to Korea and finally figure out what to do with AOL). Meanwhile, those insidious anti-piracy flags will be popping up everywhere, and in the process probably making obsolete your current set-top box or $6,000 HDTV set with its built-in receiver because they can't decode the flag and show the picture.

But by the time the US, the most technologically advanced country in the world, finally catches up with little Korea, there will only be one big broadcaster left anyway. And with he-reports-you-decide-Geraldo-Rivera doing the local evening news, weather and sports for every city in the country, I am sure you will be entertained, even if you can't tape his high-def show.

January 2004

Copyright 2004, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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