Freeview HD content management
Ofcom has this week published its formal consultation considering the implications of the proposed new Freeview HD content management system. This will attract further dialogue from those who take the view that introducing any form of content management represents an unacceptable restriction on consumers' rights.
So I thought it might be helpful to summarise why the BBC and other broadcasters care about this issue and why we believe consumers will benefit from a stronger Freeview HD platform supported by an appropriate content management system.
Digital Rights Management (DRM), copy protection or content management is never going to be something that we would expect viewers to react to initially with the view "that sounds like a really great idea". The issues are really quite complex and the benefits not immediately obvious (the primary benefit being that the use of such technologies gives access to a wider and more attractive range of HD content). People understandably want to be able to enjoy media in ways which suit them. They don't like the idea that the owner of that media may want to limit the way they can use that content or have some say on whether it can be shared over the internet.
Digital technology has made the copying and internet distribution of broadcast content much cheaper and easier than was ever possible in the analogue domain. For example, it is now possible to buy a box for less than £100 which will record over a hundred of hours of standard definition television. Locating this content is also much easier and, increasingly, fast network connections make it possible (although sometimes unapproved) to freely download or upload broadcast video content.
Programme producers - i.e. the people who make the content, the performers, musicians, writers, etc. - are understandably worried that digital technology makes it trivially easy to access and distribute their work - often without any payment. This situation presents real problems for them. Good quality television programmes are expensive to make and, even where producers are well paid by the broadcaster who commissions their programmes, they are often dependent on sales of this content in secondary markets (DVD and Blu-ray sales, repeat showings on other channels, and overseas sales) to cover the costs of production (and hopefully make a profit).
Broadcasters are not immune to these concerns either. Yes, the licence fee (for the BBC) and advertising (for other broadcasters with public service obligations) pays for most public service television in the UK, but all broadcasters benefit from the income they obtain from secondary sales of the content they produce 'in-house' (or which they 'co-fund'). Consumers also stand to lose as, without this income, the range and quality of the content available (on free-to-air channels) would inevitably suffer.
Broadcasters could have tried to take a 'heavy-handed' approach to this problem. They could have argued to encrypt all programmes broadcast in a digital format, they could have only distributed services on those platforms which provide extensive controls on the ability to record and distribute content, and they could even have tried to restrict the ability of consumers to watch personal recordings multiple times (other than for legally permissible purposes such as study or reporting). In short, broadcasters could have tried to implement a full DRM system for both standard and high definition content. However, and just to be clear, we have absolutely no intention of doing this.
Instead, and in the specific case of the new Freeview HD platform, broadcasters have looked at the content management controls which exist on all other broadcast HD platforms in the UK. Currently all of these other platforms limit the copying and distribution of HD content in one way or another. However, broadcasters have also looked forward, to make sure that the proposed system allows for things like: the networking of media recorders, displays and servers within consumers' own homes and the transfer of HD content from domestic recorders to personal HD media players.
Overall, we believe the proposed system takes a highly pragmatic approach to content management - which offers consumers more flexibility to view and use content than is available on any other UK platform whilst at the same time protecting the legitimate concerns of rights holders.
The key features of this system are:
- all video and audio content is broadcast unencrypted;
- content management only applies to HD recordings (there is no impact on standard definition recording or on existing Freeview recorders);
- time-shifted viewing of recorded HD content is always possible;
- at least one 'archive' HD copy on a removable device is always allowed;
- networked distribution and viewing of HD content in the home is allowed; and
- the system doesn't even prevent the uploading of standard definition copies of HD content to the internet (although it should be noted that for most content and most applications this may not be permissible under UK copyright law).
Indeed, the proposed Freeview HD content management approach is so 'light-touch' that some have argued that it is not worth having. But, this misses a key point - almost any copy protection system can be circumvented (if you put enough effort into it) - and that it is never going to be possible to prevent the determined pirate from lifting content. However, it is still really important to make sure that the unapproved copying and internet distribution of high value broadcast content doesn't become so easy that people don't think twice about doing it.
The proposed system is designed to make sure that the vast majority of consumers (those who buy and use standard products without modification) can watch, record and move Freeview HD programmes between their own devices without ever knowing there is any content management present (like most people don't even know that content on DVDs is encrypted). At the same time, it provides just enough protection to prevent the casual and incremental erosion of the value of HD broadcast content.
We expect the consultation will attract a lot of interest, particularly from those who believe that any form of content management is philosophically a bad thing, and also from the Open Source community who may still fear that this will be more restrictive than it will actually turn out to be for them. And I completely understand that point of view; I just hope that these communities can understand our position too; that we want to deliver the service which enables more viewers across the UK to enjoy high definition content as soon as possible.
We welcome all further input to Ofcom on this matter and hope that any responses can be informed by the significant additional detail provided in our response to Ofcom's letter that initiated the consultation, and to the consultation itself.
It is now up to Ofcom to decide if the system gets the balance right between protecting the interests of consumers and the interests of broadcast rights holders.
Graham Plumb is Head of Distribution Technology, BBC.