NCTA: HBO's Zitter Says DRM Is Misnomer


Digital rights management (DRM) is the wrong term for technology that secures programmers' content as it moves to new digital platforms says HBO Chief Technology Officer Bob Zitter, since it emphasized restrictions instead of opportunities.

Speaking at a panel session at the NCTA show in Las Vegas Tuesday, Zitter suggested that "DCE," or Digital Consumer Enablement, would more accurately describe technology that allows consumers "to use content in ways they haven't before," such as enjoying TV shows and movies on portable video players like  iPods.

"I don't want to use the term DRM any longer," said Zitter, who added that content-protection technology could enable various new applications for cable operators. One example could be "burn-to-own DVDs," where a consumer would use a set-top box with a built-in DVD burner to record a movie onto an optical disc, thus eliminating the costly current process of pressing DVDs and distributing them physically at retail. Another possibility, says Zitter, is "early window exhibition," either in the form of making a movie available through video-on-demand (VOD) the same day as the home video release or allowing home theater users to pay extra to see a high-definition version of a theatrical release in the comfort of their home.

A lack of copy protection is holding HBO back from making its own content available in high-definition through its popular HBO On Demand platform, he said.

Speaking privately after the panel session, Zitter said that HBO had the technology in place to roll out HBO On Demand in HD and has received strong interest from operators in such a service; he noted that HBO has already tested the technology with Comcast for content like The Sopranos on HBO On Demand and the Star Wars movies on Cinemax On Demand. But the fact that current high-definition set-tops still output unencrypted analog video through their component video outputs—a problem known as the "analog hole"---makes it too much of a piracy risk to widely offer high-definition HBO content on-demand today.

Newer HD set-tops that have a digital output with digital copy protection, such as DVI or HDMI, could allow HBO viewers to enjoy HD content on-demand while protecting HBO's economic interest. But most viewers with such set-tops are still using their analog outputs and component video cables, which cost less than HDMI cables, to connect them to their HD sets.

Theoretically, says Zitter, those analog outputs could be disabled, forcing consumers to use a secure digital connection to watch HD content. But current FCC rules don't give HBO or cable operators that power, in order to protect consumers who bought early HDTV sets that don't support digital copy protection.

"They say we can't turn off the analog output," Zitter notes.