FCC gets down and digital

Defines cable-ready sets, which won't have to receive over-air signals; OKs copy-blocking standard; toughens kids-TV rules
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The U.S. Copyright Office will now address the debate over copy protection for digital programming, the FCC having approved (last week) a copy-blocking technology being pushed by the cable industry and Hollywood.

Motion-picture-industry officials, who insist on the right to limit how many times a digital program can be copied and viewed, praised the FCC and predicted that the Copyright Office would support Hollywood.

In its Sept. 14 meeting, the FCC also stepped in to spell out how DTV manufacturers must describe the features of their sets. Both moves are considered essential for finally bringing to market digital sets that work with cable and high-quality digital movies.

Broadcasters and equipment makers complained that the FCC moves would dampen consumer demand for digital sets. "The FCC appears to have done little to hasten the delivery of interoperable digital television sets to store shelves," said Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Under FCC-mandated labels, there will be three designations for DTV sets that must be included on TVs. Functions listed under the labels must be included in owners' manuals for each set:

"Digital Cable Ready 1"-capable of carrying basic cable programming without a set-top box but unable to utilize interactive features.

"Digital Cable Ready 2"-includes the two-way "firewire" connection needed for interactive services.

"Digital Cable Ready 3"-allows interactive services without requiring set-top box or "firewire" connections.

But Fritts said none of the sets would be required to receive over-the-air signals-either analog or digital. Nor do the FCC rules spell out technical specifications needed to complete the advanced "Digital Cable Ready 3" sets expected to fuel demand for digital services.

FCC officials countered that the labels are the last step needed for set-makers to begin making basic-cable-compatible DTVs. To make sure specifications for more-sophisticated DTV sets stay on track, the FCC will require cable industry and equipment makers to report on the status of negotiations by Oct. 31. Subsequent updates will be required every six months. The agency also is holding out the threat of additional rules if the industries move too slowly.

Equipment makers warn that consumers may lose their traditional home recording rights by giving cable and Hollywood their way. But again, FCC officials say little will change from the analog, where pay-per-view movies are not free of copy protections.

A Copyright Office official said the agency will soon list what types of content are exempt from digital copy protections, but how to deal with cable content appears not to be under consideration. To decide the issue, either Hollywood or equipment makers will probably have to ask for a ruling, he said.

TV stations could face tougher kids-programming requirements as they roll out interactive and multicast digital programming, under proposals unveiled by federal regulators last week.

Also at the meeting last week, the FCC began the first formal process in establishing public-interest obligations for digital TV stations.

For kids TV, the FCC is considering whether the mandate of three hours of weekly educational programming and limits on advertising during kids TV hours now imposed on analog broadcasts should be extended to all digital programming.

Specifically, the FCC is considering whether:

  • Kids TV mandates should apply only to free broadcast services or also to pay services.
  • The amount of required programming increases if stations multicast several channels.
  • Preemption rights allowing stations to reschedule kids shows during sport and news coverage should be eliminated for multicasters.
  • Ad limits should be applied to pay programs.
  • Interactive advertising to kids should be restricted.
  • Stations should be barred from promoting violent or "age-inappropriate" products during children's shows.

The commission also decided to require stations to update their children's programming reports quarterly rather than annually. The reports also will be required to spell out how often programs in the three-hour "core" are preempted, their rescheduling practices, and efforts used to notify parents of preemptions.

In addition, the FCC asked for comment on plans to require posting for children's programming reports on the Web. n

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