Sides debate flag waiving

H'wood raises flag of support

Hollywood could withhold popular movies and television shows from digital over-the-air broadcast if Congress fails to mandate a content-protection technology, witnesses told a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Other witnesses said that if Congress does impose the mandate, it could trample rights of consumers and educators.

Both sides claimed to respect each other’s fundamental position, but neither side ceded any ground, offering no consensus to guide a Senate committee on what to do.

Showbiz execs argued that the coming transition to digital TV requires a means to protect high-quality content when broadcast over the air. Otherwise, the threat of digital bootlegging — much greater than in analog, they said — could force content owners to sell or license their goods only to cable and satellite, which can protect digital transmissions.

“The long-term viability of free over-the-air digital television (is) in doubt and is certainly not in the public interest,” said Andy Setos, president of engineering for Fox Entertainment Group.

“If digital cable and satellite transmissions are protected against unauthorized redistribution over the Internet, but digital broadcast transmissions are not, then the owners of high value content will quite reasonably choose to exhibit their programs on cable and satellite distribution platforms rather than through free over-the-air broadcasting,” Preston Padden, Disney/ABC’s exec VP for worldwide government relations, said in written testimony.

The protection technology that movie and TV studios want mandated is known as “broadcast flag,” a device that reads incoming broadcast signals for content that has been marked, or flagged. The device sharply limits the ability to copy and distribute that content.

The Federal Communications Commission previously introduced a rule requiring consumer electronics manufacturers to integrate broadcast flag technology into new TV sets. Various interest groups challenged the rule, and subsequently a federal court blocked it, saying the FCC lacked the authority to impose it.

Tuesday’s hearing tried to address the question of whether Congress should, by legislation, give the FCC that authority.

The same interest groups, once again led by the American Library Assn., argued that the technology would prevent consumers from exercising fair use and would prohibit educators from legitimately transmitting on the Internet clips of news or public affairs shows for online courses.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which held the hearing, emphasized that he wanted to balance the rights of fair, legit use against the need to protect digital content, but was disappointed that no balance seemed to emerge from the testimony.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) was the only member of the committee to question the need for any kind of mandated protection. The entertainment world has always perceived new technologies as a threat, he said, only to profit from them eventually.

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