Opinion: High-Definition Video--Bad For Consumers, Bad For Hollywood

Digital rights management gadgetry has turned high-definition video into a lumbering dinosaur that consumers won't want to buy. And a good thing, too--because Hollywood doesn't know what to do with

September 26, 2006

10 Min Read
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The high-definition screen has become a kind of Christmas tree, overladen with ornaments hung by regulators, greedy entertainment execs, would-be monopolists from the tech sector, broadcasters desperate to hold on to their spectrum, and even video game companies nostalgic for the yesteryear of impervious boxes. The tree is toppling--and it might just take out a few industries when it crashes.

High def kicked off in the '80s, when Detroit was losing the car wars to Japan and Motorola was figuring out that radio spectrum was pure gold if applied to mobile phones. Moto pointed out that the National Association of Broadcasters' members were squatting on lots of spectrum they'd been allocated, but hadn't lit up with TV signals. (Broadcasters get their spectrum for free, and in exchange we're supposed to get some programming over those airwaves.) Motorola proposed to buy the idle spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission and use it to run a phone business.

The NAB panicked--there's nothing a corporate welfare bum hates more than an end to its government handouts. So the broadcasters cast about for an excuse, any excuse, to continue to hold on to our valuable radio spectrum while doing nothing much with it. They found that excuse in Japan, where high-definition sets were being met with popular and critical acclaim. Japan--having destroyed the American auto industry--was about to destroy American broadcasting with its devious high-def sets, creating a high-def gap that America would struggle in vain to bridge!

The nervy broadcasters asked the commission to leave all that fallow spectrum intact and, furthermore, to allocate them even more spectrum so that they could broadcast HD signals alongside the analog ones. Once enough Americans had bought high-def receivers, the FCC could switch off the analog towers and return the spectrum to the American public, and then it could be sold to the likes of Moto for mobile applications.Incredibly, the commission swallowed this and gave the broadcasters even more spectrum. The broadcasters approach spectrum like a dragon approaches gold: It's something to be hoarded and jealously guarded, but they're not much interested in using it. So they took all that high-def spectrum and built a nest of it, rested their ponderous, scaly bellies on it, and never lit it up.

By the 2000s, Congress and the FCC were desperate to get that spectrum in use. Representative Billy Tauzin (now a shill for the pharmaceutical industry) offered to give Hollywood any law it wanted in order to entice them to open their movies to broadcasters, which might in turn entice broadcasters to light up those towers, which might entice Americans to throw out their standard TVs. No, really! This is the kind of Rube Goldberg strategy they're chasing! In the U.K., by contrast, they simply created a standard for "FreeView," a box that tunes in 30 free, standard-definition digital TV channels and plays them on your old set, giving Brits an unbeatable enticement to switch to digital: One box gets you free cable for life, and you don't have to throw out your TV.

If the studios had their druthers, they'd just encrypt high-def signals. An encrypted signal needs a key to decrypt, and you can set up all kinds of rules about when, how, and who can decrypt a show by building it into the contract that comes with the key. But you can't encrypt over-the-air TV: The broadcasters get the spectrum for free, and in exchange they have to serve us. It wouldn't do to let them lock us out of the programs aired on our airwaves.

The Broadcast Flag is the law the studios came up with to square this circle. They proposed a Soviet-style planned economy (Fox president Andy Setos, who wrote the Broadcast Flag draft, referred to it as a "well-mannered marketplace") where all TV receivers would have to be built to honor the rules set down by the entertainment industry. The studios would get a veto over any feature that threatened its existing business model, and anyone who wanted to interface with a TV receiver would have to agree to play by Hollywood's rules. Even video cards, hard drives, and motherboards would fall under this rule.

The Broadcast Flag was adopted by the FCC and then struck down by a D.C. court that told the commission its jurisdiction stopped at the broadcasting tower and didn't extend to your living room. But the studios and the broadcasters continue to advance their plans for a high-def universe, and they continue to use HD as a Trojan horse for smuggling in mandates over the design of commodity electronics.

The first line of this is high-def media players, particularly games and the competing DVD specifications (to call them "standards" is an insult to honest standards), Blu-ray and HD DVD. These systems only output high-definition picture on their digital outputs, and those outputs are encrypted. To decrypt them on your TV, you need to get permission from the entertainment industry, and to get permission you have to make a bunch of wicked promises.For example, you have to promise to honor region codes, those nuisances that try to restrict what country you can watch your lawfully purchased movies in. That's not about copyright: Copyright doesn't let an author tell you what country you can take his books to, or a director where you can watch his movies. It's just an arbitrary business model that the studios can impose with the force of law, just by scrambling their movies and making permission to descramble contingent on a manufacturer treating their business model as though it were law.

The new HD technologies include anti-user nasties like "renewability"--the ability to remotely disable some or all of the device's features without your permission. If someone, somewhere, figures out how to use your DVD burner to make copies of Hollywood movies, they can switch off everyone's burner, punishing a limitless number of innocents to get at a few guilty parties.

The HD DRM systems also include gems like "selectable output control"--wherein some programs will refuse to be played on some devices. As you flip up and down the dial, parts of your home theater will go dark. Creepier still is "authorized domain"--the ability to flag content so that it can only be played within a "household," where the studios get to define what is and isn't a valid living arrangement.

On top of these restrictions are the punishing "robustness" regimes that come with HD DRM systems. These are the rules manufacturers have to follow to ensure that the anti-user stuff in their devices isn't compromised. It's a requirement to add expensive armor to products that stop a device's owner from opening up her device to see what's inside and make changes. That's bad news for open source, of course, since open source is all about being able to look at, modify, and republish the code that runs a device.

But even if you don't care about open source, the cash and utility cost of compliance is a hardship. Sony's HD version of the PlayStation costs a whopping $100 more than the non-HD version, and Sony's first generation of Blu-ray DVD drives won't play Blu-ray movies because they can't get sufficient anti-owner countermeasures into the box. Microsoft's 32-bit version of Vista won't do HD, either.Most extraordinary is the relationship of HD DRM to the world's largest supply of HD screens: LCD computer monitors. The vast majority of HD-ready, 1080i-capable screens in the world are cheapo computer LCDs. Chances are you've got a couple at home right now.

But unless these screens are built with crippleware HDMI or DVI interfaces, they won't be able to receive high-def signals. DRM standards call these legacy screens and treat them as second-class citizens.

All this may be enough to scuttle HD's future. Let's hope so, for Hollywood's sake.

Because, you see, HD is also poison for the entertainment industry's own products. The higher the resolution, the harder it is to make the picture look good. Standard-def programs on high-def screens look like over-compressed YouTube videos, and when you get a high-def program shot by traditional directors, it looks even worse, every flaw thrown into gaudy relief. Have a look at the HD-native episodes of Friends some day--it's all gaping pores, running pancake makeup, caked-on hairspray, and freakishly thin bodies with giant, tottering heads.

It's even worse when it comes to computer-generated imagery, that staple of big-budget blockbusters. Computer graphics have a painfully short adolescence, a period of months during which an animation sequence looks impressive. From there, it's a fast, one-way slide into liver-spotted senescence, in which the artifice of the computer becomes a jumble of last year's polygons. When this year's Coke commercials have slicker graphics than last year's $200 million extruded sci-fi product, the last thing you want to do is show it on a giant, high-res screen.

The natural life cycle of computer-aided movies in an era of Moore's Law is to a series of successively smaller, lower-resolution screens. As Geek Entertainment TV's Irina Slutsky says, "An iPod screen is my personal airbrush." Some movies are already dated by the time they hit the big screen--take Polar Express, which looked so creepy I almost mistook it for a horror film when I saw it on a megascreen on opening weekend. The next Christmas, I caught it on an old 12" TV at a friend's cottage. It looked terrific--I nearly forgot I was seeing pixels, not people.There are some directors who get HD, to be sure. Mark Cuban's HDNet features a pretty good selection of nice-looking big-screen pictures. Cuban is one of the few entrepreneurs making content intended for a long life in HD, and not coincidentally he's a staunch opponent of HD DRM systems. You can also get a nice HD experience by picking up a classic film from a master filmmaker--DigitalLifeTV's Patrick Norton is a fan of Goodfellas in HD.

But for every Mark Cuban and Martin Scorsese, there are a thousand people making programs that look better at standard def or even smaller--shows that play well in your pocket, but whose props and actors look like cardboard at 100 inches.

That shouldn't surprise us, really. Computer users have had giant displays for a decade, and we don't use them to show one gigantic window! Give a computer user a 30" flat-panel and she'll load it up with 25 windows--some video, some text, some interactive. Blowing all that screen real estate on a single picture is a waste.

Hollywood has fallen into the "horseless carriage" trap: A big screen is like a small screen, but bigger. A personal computer is like a mainframe, but on your desk. In reality, the big living room screen is a different thing altogether. For years, the electronic hearth has lost currency and relevance to households who would no sooner all watch the same screen than wear the same underwear.

The big screen is not a big TV--big screens are multiwindow workspaces. There's an opportunity there, a chance to bring the family back together in front of the same set. Who's to say all 100 inches of the living room set should show one football game? Why not give both kids their own spaces to play their own consoles in corners of the screen, give Mom and Dad their own areas to watch, and throw up a browser and some RSS-fed image and text crawls?A big screen for big pictures might have sounded good in the '80s, when the FCC was signing over the nation's priceless spectrum to the NAB. But lots of things sounded like a good idea in the eighties: multimedia CD-ROMs, ISDNs, and RISC architecture. It's 2006: We know better now.

Cory Doctorow is co-editor of the Boing Boing blog, as well as a journalist, Internet activist, and science-fiction writer.

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