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Studios seek digital heaven

WASHINGTON — If L.B. Mayer were around for the digital age, he’d probably run for cover.

That’s saying a lot for a mogul who helped the studio system over plenty of troubled bridges, from silents to talkies, from black & white to Technicolor.

Now comes the bridge to digital TV, a crossing complicated by consolidation and what can only be described as techno quicksand.

Studios know a potential gold mine lies on the other side. Imagine it. A 500-channel universe just begging for programming, whether it’s movies, or sports or run-of-the-mill reruns dusty from years on the shelf.

“The transition to digital TV is a lot like getting to heaven. Everybody knows how to get to heaven, but nobody wants to do what it takes to get there,” Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) opined during a March 15 congressional hearing on the matter.

Studios say they must be guaranteed some control over how digitized content is disseminated. (Can anyone say Napster?) Just how much control is the question.

Turns out Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures Entertainment are ready to pay the toll and get going, even if it means breaking ranks with Fox Filmed Entertainment, MGM Studios, Paramount Universal Television & Networks Group and the Walt Disney Co.

The sticking point is whether copy protection should apply only to cable and other program-for-hire services, or to broadcast as well. Sony and Warners say it’s not feasible to give the same amount of protection to over-the-air broadcasting, since broadcasting is, by definition, free.

Warner Bros. exec and chief technology officer Chris Cookson told lawmakers that his studio and Sony are close to signing a licensing deal with five consumer electronics manufacturers known as the 5C: Intel, Matsushita, Toshiba, Sony and Hitachi.

Cookson, widely respected for his techno wizardry, said the agreement is the best deal for the moment, and necessary to get the rollout of digital TV under way.

The pact would protect broadcasting carried over cable wires from being retransmitted over the Internet, but not broadcasting coming into the home via antenna. Also, there would be less copy protection available to broadcasting than to cable.

The Mouse and Fox are on the other side, arguing that broadcasting should receive equal due. Otherwise, no one in their right mind will license high-value content to broadcasters.

For now, the remaining three studios are standing by the Mouse and Fox. A group of key lawmakers also has joined the Mouse House camp.

Until late last fall, the majors had presented a collective front in negotiating with 5C.

“This is not a dysfunctional family so I think we can work it out,” Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said during a March 15 hearing on digital TV.

Maybe not a dysfunctional family, but certainly a family that’s been married off to far-flung empires, with myriad interests.

Warner Bros. is the prize child of the newly merged AOL Time Warner. Conglom is the country’s largest Internet provider and the world’s largest entertainment venture, going down the list from mags to movies and music.

Disney owns ABC; Fox also has a net. Paramount is owned by Viacom, which likewise owns CBS and Blockbuster.

In addition to its Hollywood interests, Sony is a consumer electronics manufacturer.

All sides — including 5C — stress that the transition can still be braved together and that no bridge has yet burned. Perhaps only singed.

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