May 15, 2008 | By Danny O'Brien

Does NBC Control Your TV?

Reports are coming in of digital video recording systems refusing to record NBC programs - both on digital cable and over-the-air transmissions.

We're still investigating whether these involved over-the-air digital TV, which would mean that NBC was the first broadcaster to attempt to revive the abandoned ATSC "broadcast flag" (as opposed to cable and analog copy control signals like CGMS-A which have been used before).

Thanks to the activism of thousands of concerned tech users, hardware and software manufacturers that handle over-the-air digital TV do not need to obey the digital TV broadcast flag. There is no "broadcast flag" copy control requirement for these tuners, since the courts overturned the FCC's plans to enforce it in 2005; and despite the entertainment industry's bluster, it does not look like a broadcast flag law will be passed before the digital switch-over next year.

However, hardware and software could voluntarily obey the flag. Rightsholders are almost certainly lobbying behind the scenes to get tech companies to agree to obey copy controls for over-the-air digital TV. Software like Vista is already designed to comply with rightsholder restrictions when working with standards like CableCard which contractually require copy protection. Turning the same restrictions on when a message is received from an over-the-air tuner is just a small coding step away.

At this point no one knows which tech companies have sold out their users in this way. For understandable reasons, manufacturers keep their compliance details quiet -- which is why customers are so angry when they encounter it. ATI has previously reported that they will support the broadcast flag, but this news was buried in a driver change log.

Companies that implement the over-the-air digital broadcast flag are under no obligation, contractually or due to FCC regulation, to do so. They have a choice. And so do their customers.

Millions of dollars will be spent in the next few months as America switches to digital television. Prosumers like those at "The Green Button" are often the first to be bitten by TV's copy restrictions, but they will not be the last.

Perhaps electronics magazines and online reviews should look into exactly how digital TV equipment is dealing with the rightsholders' demands, and publicize which companies still obey the redundant and user-unfriendly broadcast flag -- and which still listen to their customers.

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