Schubin’s Greatest Hits

Ideal or "I Deal"?

Originally published in Videography February 2003

Will television entertainment be destroyed without digital-rights management?  Similar predictions were made in 1976.

CBS has been pushing high-definition television (HDTV) for more than 22 years — longer than anyone else has in the United States. But they recently informed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they would stop their HDTV broadcasts unless a particular “rights management” system is mandated by the government.

What’s going on? Perhaps it would be best to start with web surfing or hotel-room movies — or even earlier.

Ptolemy IV was king of Egypt from 221 to 205 BC. When he died, his son and successor, Ptolemy V, was still a very young boy. To help legitimize the new king’s reign, the local priests recorded a lengthy decree requiring an image of him in every temple.

We know this — and much else that we know about ancient Egypt, as far back as the fourth millennium BC — because of that particular recording. Had those priests lived in the 1960s instead of more than 2,000 years ago, they might have recorded the decree on one of that decade’s non-standardized, half-inch open-reel videotape recorders. If so, the information might have been lost to posterity because no one today would be able to find a compatible videotape player.

Living a couple of millennia ago, they decided, instead, to carve the decree into a large slab of basalt. And they wrote it three times: once in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, a second time in a more modern Egyptian script scholars refer to as demotic, and, finally, in a relatively new language called Greek, used by the Ptolemys.

A large piece of the rock they used was eventually found by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 near a city in northern Egypt that didn’t even exist for a millennium after the death of Ptolemy V. The British took the carving from the French two years later, and you can still see it today in London. Named for the French interpretation of the name of the area where it was found, the Rosetta stone provided the key that allowed scholars to crack the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Among the countless sites on the worldwide web, a search for “Rosetta stone” will turn up over 100,000. Many of those show the complete text, which can be easily downloaded for free at any time. It’s unlikely that Ptolemy’s heirs care.

That seems to be the case for much of what’s available on the worldwide web. Material is posted. Material is downloaded. And, for the most part, no one cares.

The worldwide web did not yet exist when two visionaries came up with the concepts of what seem to have become key aspects of it: hypertext and streaming. The companies they created to bring their concepts to fruition were called Computer Television and Xanadu. If neither company is familiar, that, itself, might be instructive.

Computer Television was the brainchild of Paul Klein, who had been vice president of audience measurement at NBC in the 1960s. He also developed the Theory of the Least Objectionable Program as an explanation of why television programming seemed largely mediocre.

According to the theory (proposed in the era before widespread remote controls), a viewer would turn on a TV and settle into a chair while the tubes warmed up. If whatever was on was acceptable, it stayed on. If it wasn’t, the viewer got up and twisted the dial to the next channel. If what was on that channel wasn’t acceptable, the dial was twisted again.

Eventually, the viewer would come back to the first channel, a process Klein called taking a lap around the dial. After at most another few laps, the viewer would settle for not the most appealing program (which would have stopped the search immediately) but the least objectionable. Thus, the least objectionable program would win its time slot.

Perhaps because he was, at least in part, responsible for such least-objectionable programming, Klein sought a way around it. His Computer Television concept would free viewers from the temporal bonds of network programmers.

Instead of seeing in a TV program listing that a certain five programs were available at 8:00 pm and a different five at 9:00, Computer Television viewers would pick up directories the size of a major-city phone book and select desired

shows from them. Then they’d punch a few numbers into set-top boxes, and the shows would appear instantly, the costs of watching automatically appearing later on a monthly bill.

It would be like making a phone call. Just as anyone can dial anyone else at any time for a small fee, Computer Television would allow anyone to watch anything at any time for a small fee.
Today, we might call the concept video-on-demand (VOD). Some might call it video streaming. Perhaps a few will even see similarities between it and personal video recorders (PVRs) like TiVo. In 1971, the concept was exciting enough that the company that would later become AOL Time Warner (and own Home Box Office) bought into it.

In order to show the attractiveness of the idea of watching quality programming on demand, the Computer Television team rigged up a hotel in Newark, New Jersey with a system to allow guests to watch recently released movies in their rooms. The movies were watched more than TV shows on at the same time.

The in-room hotel-movie business was born. VOD went into hibernation. Even 32 years later, the technology doesn’t seem to have caught up with Klein’s concept. VOD, streaming, and PVR viewers can’t yet watch anything

at any time. And today’s ordinary-television viewers have access to many more channels, free or for a monthly subscription rather than a pay-per-view fee.


is a term that might have been a part of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu as well. Nelson, while a graduate student at Harvard in 1960, came up with a concept of a sort of universal electronic library with non-linear capabilities he called “hypertext.”

To some, Nelson’s hypertext may have presaged by decades the links that allow surfing the worldwide web. Nelson, himself, doesn’t like the comparison. “The Web isn’t hypertext,” his own web site declares, “it’s DECORATED DIRECTORIES!”

Then, too, there was the earlier visionary who influenced Nelson. In his 1945 Atlantic Monthly

article “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush speculated about an electronic information system with human-like associative links. But Nelson incorporated something important that was absent from Bush’s concept.

He told of the missing link in a 1978 interview (coincidentally shot in the home of Computer Television’s third employee) shown on the TV series Fast Forward

. Still a dozen years before the worldwide web came into existence, he explained that the Xanadu concept involved not merely instant access

to information but also instant automatic payment

for it.

In an article in Byte

magazine in 1990, he remained adamant about that payment. “…the customer is buying the fragments from the original author whenever those quotations are read. So, nothing is misquoted, nothing is out of context, credit is apportioned correctly, and royalties are apportioned correctly.” Of course, that year the Web was born, and, today, although some information on it is restricted to paying customers, there is a huge quantity of material — some misquoted, some uncredited, and some out of context — available free.

Like Klein, Nelson received significant funding for his concept. But, like Computer Television, Xanadu was both always ahead of its time and seemingly overtaken by events.

John Logie Baird was another information-age visionary. To some extent, he may be credited with the inventions of television, color television, stereoscopic television, television broadcasting, see-in-the-dark television, videophones, faster-than-real-time video-segment transfer, theater-screen television, live-remote TV broadcasts, network-TV lines, and home video recording — all before 1930.

Unfortunately, Baird’s spinning-disk-based mechanical-television systems couldn’t compete with higher-quality all-electronic systems. Baird, too, was both ahead of his time and overtaken by events.

The first commercially successful recorder for electronic-era television didn’t appear until 1956. It was a very-expensive, desk-sized monster requiring advanced technical training for operation. Nevertheless, as soon as it was demonstrated, Jack Gould, the TV critic of The New York Times

, envisioned today’s home-video era. “Why not pick up the new full-length motion picture at the corner drugstore,” he wrote, “and then run it through one’s home TV receiver?”

The size and cost of the 1956 videotape recorder effectively precluded its use in homes, and even the smaller, cheaper, easier-to-use model in the 1963 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog sent no one into a panic. But the U.S. arrival of Sony’s Betamax in 1976 did. Disney and Universal sued to stop home-video recording, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of Betamax in 1984.

Why the lawsuit? There was the possibility of tape-viewers skipping commercials. So-called “time-shift” recording could wreak havoc with the intentions of network programmers. Home videotapes, themselves, could be copied; in theory, one person could rent a movie, make ten copies for friends who’d each make ten copies for friends and so on, until everyone would see it for the price of one rental. And Universal’s parent was working on its own disk-based home-video system.

By the year 2000, the worst fears of 1976 would seem to have been realized. Some 94% of U.S. households had videocassette recorders (VCRs).

On the other hand, Hollywood studios were making a fortune from home video, commercials were still being watched, and the latest disk-based home-video system, DVD, was the fastest-growing consumer-electronics product of all time. All of that is still true, except that — perhaps due in part to DVD players — the percentage of homes with stand-alone VCRs has dropped slightly.

The producers of entertainment programming have probably made more money since 1976 through legal copies than they’ve lost through any illegal activity. But today there are two new fear factors: digital HDTV and the worldwide web. The latest technology-scare theory for content owners is that someone will retransmit a digital HDTV show on the worldwide web.


supposedly means it will have theatrical quality; digital

supposedly means it will lose none of that quality in the retransmission; and worldwide web

supposedly means anyone, anywhere, will be able to download it at any time. It’s like Computer Television or Xanadu but without the billing component.

The so-called “broadcast flag” is supposed to take care of the problem. It’s what CBS wants the FCC to mandate. Effectively, it’s a transmitted bit that can be set to indicate that the associated material is not to be retransmitted. Unfortunately, effectively

is not a very good term to describe the process.

First, there’s a legacy-equipment problem. Through the end of 2002, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), more than 540,000 HDTV-capable terrestrial-broadcast digital-television receivers without

any broadcast-flag capability had been shipped to U.S. dealers. Some are already available on the auction site eBay.

Even if the FCC were to order retransmission protection at once, there might be over a million unflagged receivers released by the time the mandate took effect. That doesn’t even count hundreds of thousands of HDTV-capable cable-television set-top boxes nor some satellite HDTV receivers. Any one

of those would be sufficient to get around the broadcast-flag restriction and post an HDTV program to the Internet, so it doesn’t appear that the broadcast-flag mandate will close the barn door sufficiently.

Then there’s a legacy-activity problem. As soon as homes started having more than one VCR, it became common practice to record a tape in one room and play it in another. PVRs don’t have removable media, so their manufacturers have begun offering networking capabilities to transmit programming from one PVR to another. If the broadcast flag prevents such networking, it will restrict activities that are currently practiced. If it allows it, how will a restriction to just the in-home network be enforced?

In fact, simply allowing pictures to be seen and sounds to be heard at all presents a problem. Data can be secured; other things are more vulnerable.

Consider the vast, global network of automatic teller machines (ATMs). The interconnections between them and banks are very secure. If they weren’t, then thieves would already have drained the world’s money supplies. But no amount of interconnection security will prevent a thief from watching you enter your personal identification number and then stealing your wallet to drain your account.

Similarly, it’s certainly possible to secure a digital HDTV transmission so only authorized viewers can receive it. But what happens once it is received?

According to CEA, there are already millions of HDTV displays in U.S. homes. Most of them are not yet hooked up to a source of HDTV, but all can be. That is, all can be if

that source emits analog signals. The vast majority of existing HDTV displays have only analog video inputs.
If the broadcast flag precludes analog outputs on HDTV receivers, then it will disenfranchise the millions of owners of existing HDTV displays. If it doesn’t, then any one of those owners can convert the analog signals back to digital and send them to the Internet with very little degradation.

Even if the broadcast-flag mandate eliminates analog outputs, if the pictures can be seen and the sounds heard, then they can be captured with a camcorder. This year, JVC, a company that already sold Internet-streaming camcorders, introduced a consumer HDTV camcorder.

The quality of a camcorder pickup won’t match that of a direct digital connection, but it can come very close. So called “optical standards converters” are, in effect, simply video cameras shooting picture tubes to change from one television standard (say, 525-line/30-frame) to another (say, 625-line/25-frame). The old “analog computer” special effects systems, such as Computer Image’s Scanimate, were similar. So is the “optical printing” technique long used in the motion-picture industry.

Recently, Sarnoff Corporation demonstrated a digital “watermark” that can be used on digital-cinema screens. Even after a camcorder shoots the screen and compresses the information down to the rate recorded on a MiniDV cassette, the “watermark” (a hidden low-frequency identification signal) can still be read.

In theory, at least, future camcorders could be equipped with “watermark” readers that could prevent recording or retransmission. But that would be future

camcorders. No existing ones have any such “watermark”-detection circuitry.

If digital “watermarks” can’t prevent piracy, what good are they? The plans of another company that was once part of the conglomerate that became AOL Time Warner could be revealing. Computer Television (and HBO) were part of Time. WASEC was part of Warner.

WASEC was the Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company: MTV, Nickelodeon, and, most significantly, The Movie Channel. As its name suggests, it was one of the sources of satellite-delivered entertainment programming for cable-TV systems.

HBO delivered the first such programming in 1975, when satellite reception involved a dish antenna some 20-feet or more in diameter and expensive electronics, for a total cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. But, by the end of that decade, home viewers were already installing backyard satellite-reception systems allowing them to get HBO and The Movie Channel free.

in this case, means making electronically possible. Federal law already prohibited reception of most signals without authorization (exceptions were primarily broadcast, amateur, and distress-call transmissions). But possession of a satellite earth station didn’t necessarily indicate illegal activity, because permission had

been granted to receive certain signals (e.g., Trinity Broadcasting Network).

HBO and WASEC initially took different paths to deal with the problem of unauthorized reception. HBO went for a high-security scrambling system — something that required expensive decoders at all authorized receivers and might ultimately be cracked anyway. WASEC went for a two-pronged approach: an inexpensive, almost-trivial-to-defeat scrambling system and legislation making unauthorized satellite-TV reception a serious crime.

Why the simple descrambler? Without it, eyewitness testimony would be needed to prove signal theft. But mere possession of an unauthorized descrambler would indicate nefarious purposes.

Unfortunately for WASEC, when HBO started using its more-complex scrambling, lawmakers saw no need for a legislative solution when there was apparently a technological one. Even today, congressional representatives hope a technological solution will eliminate the need for legislation dealing with digital-rights management. But, like WASEC’s simple descrambler, Sarnoff’s “watermark” could be used as proof of theft.

Perhaps CBS, which now owns the WASEC networks, had something like that in mind when it threatened to cease HDTV broadcasts is there were no broadcast-flag mandate. Perhaps they hope for a mandate requiring not only the broadcast flag but also some sort of indicator system to alert CBS-hired monitors that improper retransmission was taking place.

Given that it’s a broadcast

flag, the mandated indicator could be a pyrotechnic device attached to each rooftop antenna. That way, testifying against an unauthorized retransmitter of primetime programming who claimed to have done nothing wrong, the CBS monitor could report that “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.”