Wandering in Fields of Idiots

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PSBs in Free to Air Environments

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The Synopsis

This document aims to describe the current movements in PSB’s (Public Service Broadcasters) and how their circumstances are affecting changes in technology. This is an incomplete document so far and I have posted it here for discussion, I could easily be wrong about so many things, but I have been working on all sides for enough time to have made some observations that need to be discussed.

The Environment

Taking the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a prime example and reflecting that on other broadcasters the duty of a PSB is to: inform, educate and entertain their viewers. There are effectively several classes of channels operating in the modern world of digital television:
1)There are those commercial channels who are funded entirely through commercial means such as advertising or sponsorship and who are subject to market forces but take no money from subscriptions and make themselves available to anyone who has the means to receive.
2)There are those public channels that are funded significantly with public money and in which advertising/sponsorship plays a lesser or non-existent role.
3)There are subscription only channels who are funded in the main by commercials but whom receive some compensation from one or more pay television operators in exchange for the right to carry the channel.
4)The high value content or Pay-Per-View channel who is funded almost entirely from the revenues of the subscription with only supplementary advertising (if any).

The first class may or may not be classes as a PSB, it is often the decision of the government or regulator as to which channels are to have Public Service Obligations. The most basic obligation is to be carried on all the primary television platforms being used in the country (“wholesale must carry”), another is to carry a certain balance of programming and another is often to include content/mechanism for minority groups (such as supporting subtitles for the hard of hearing). The idea of “Wholesale Must Carry” is the fundamental because it obliges the platform operator to provide facilities to deliver the PSB services and it obliges the channels to ensure they can deliver that service. The fundamental thing about a PSB however is that no matter if it is publicly funded or funded through some other mechanism it must be freely available to the viewers irrespective of their choice of platform.

In terms of publicly funded broadcasting organisations they tend to develop a great deal of their content in-house. This is because this can lead to good economies of scale but also because the tendency to purchase in premium foreign content does perhaps not always meet the PSB obligations and may not address the primary goals of the organisation. In many countries it is tempting to purchase popular American TV series and either dub or subtitle them, but this is probably not be nurturing the native language or talents of the broadcasters own country. But there are always exceptions to this and the benefits of using high value productions with good economies of scale are understood (subject to striking the right balance).

When purchasing content derived from third parties complex legal documents must be signed to cover the use and distribution of that content. This will discuss how the content is delivered, the target audience demographic, expected volume of viewers and the platforms over which the content is delivered. Often one of the most contentious issues for a broadcaster who is transmitting without the benefit of encryption is: who exactly is watching?

The Encryption

Encryption is used by broadcast platforms to secure content; this means that only devices or users who are so authorised may view the content. In the case of a system involving subscriber management monies can be taken in exchange of access to certain packages of content (this is referred to as PayTV). However the PSBs are often in an arrangement where they must be included in a PayTV platform but there is not a requirement to charge for their services and where they are encrypted but no specific subscription is required this is called “Free to View” (if you have the correct equipment you should receive the service incidentally to any subscription). “Free to View” has also another purpose, in situations where the broadcast may be received outside of the target demographic, e.g. there may be overspill into other countries/territories, encryption with no reoccurring costs may be deployed for border control.

If however a broadcaster must for logistical, regulatory, economical or technical reasons broadcast without encryption then this is called “Free to Air”; this is because the broadcasts are likely based on standards, and the signal can be plucked out of the air with generic/standard equipment. Where a broadcaster is broadcasting with potential overspill there may be contractual implications with the provider of content to that channel. The impact of overspill must be assessed because it may have some effect on the revenues for the rights as sold to another channel in the overspill territory. For example, if a pay television operator charges for football coverage in one country but the citizens can use some apparatus to pick up the same content for free from another country then this must be considered.

The Change

Traditionally, in most counties, terrestrial analogue broadcasting has been without any means of security but overspill has been minimal. Analogue recording mechanisms, such as VHS, were relatively crude and not easy to use for profitable piracy. With the advent of digital television has given the ability to record content at the same quality as it was broadcast and improvements in video codec’s have begun to produce video in data sizes that are transportable over the improving computer networks.

This has now created a problem, content can move between territories with increased freedom and in some countries the content may be paid for through subscription, but in others it may be only advert supported or even purchased with public money (with no adverts). Because of overspill and the easier trafficking of content between regions the rights holders are carefully asserting their rights, managing each element of the distribution and checking the capabilities of each distribution method. If broadcasters don’t make sufficient efforts to limit the movement of content beyond the target purpose then the broadcaster is either denied access to that content or charged more for it.

The Protection

Beyond encryption there are many measures that are taken by platform operators to limit the freedom of content on platforms. One of the most basic mechanisms is to specify that certain connectors are excluded from the design of boxes by the suppliers/manufacturers. Limiting the availability or quality of outputs reduces the desirability of copying the content. Currently the rights holders are requesting that analogue component HD connectors are removed from products so that only HDMI with additional HDCP security is available (the number of HD analogue only TVs is much reduced in the market). This however is a flawed measure because the market for HD analogue video recorders is very small and they are relatively expensive. When in fact, even where encryption exists, it is possible to use a computer with software decoding of the encryption, or one of the many generic broadcast receivers with recording ability and a plug in module to handle the decryption. Where the broadcast is made without encryption and this security measure is applied the requirement is a true case of ‘shutting the gate after the horse has bolted’.

Increasingly there is a desire to prevent consumer electronics devices from being pure islands of technology and to increase the availability of the connected home to deliver advantages to the consumer. The most basic desire is the ability to move content between rooms (and devices).
The simplest way of moving recorded content around is to copy it to removable storage, but this ability in turn makes it easier for people to distribute that content outside of the territory. This poses a distinct problem for a first run series which may be shown in one market before another, or on a pay network in one region but not in another. Another mechanism is to permit the device to share content over a network between devices.

The solution to the problem of allowing users to copy content has so far been to ensure that some form of encryption is maintained when the content is moved. This may tie the content from being moved between different products or manufacturers, or simply just from not being played on devices that cannot be trusted not to be a vector for wider proliferation. This technology is often called Digital Rights Management (or DRM) by consumers.
Overall however in a public service broadcasting environment this type of security is often just said to be “Keeping Honest People Honest” and to quote Dan Glickman from Motion Picture Association of America1:
“…it is not correct to assume that one clever hack dooms all use of DRM. Content owners use DRMs because it provides casual, honest users with guidelines for using and consuming content based on the usage rights that were acquired. Without the use of DRMs, honest consumers would have no guidelines and might eventually come to totally disregard copyright and therefore become a pirate, resulting in great harm to content creators.
DRMs’ primary role is not about keeping copyrighted content off P2P networks. DRMs support an orderly market for facilitating efficient economic transactions between content producers and content consumers.”

The question stands is that, in a world where there is no unified standard for DRM, are the limitations imposed on the consumer by technology light enough to actually allow them to do whatever they want with content that they have the right to watch in whatever way they wish?
By broadcasting in the clear the broadcaster is putting the work they transmit into the public domain; by placing

The Question

…tbc