BBC wins go-ahead for Freeview HD content controls
No need for panic?
Ofcom, the UK’s TV regulator, has today given the go-ahead for the implementation of content controls on Freeview’s HD service. The controls are designed to prevent HD content being copied, controls without which, broadcasters have argued, some programmes might not be able to be shown.
The proposals mean that, while there won’t be restrictions on recording programmes on to a DVR with a built-in receiver, there will be restrictions imposed on attempts to copy material to other devices, for example by burning it to disc in high definition.
Rather than full-blown encryption, the Freeview HD programmes themselves will continue to be broadcast in the clear – so they’ll be receivable by DVB-T2 PC tuners when those become available.
The content protection takes the form of a system already in use on Freesat, where the EPG data will be compressed using Huffman encoding. Manufacturers who wish to access the EPG data will have to license the Huffman table needed to decode the data from the Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator (DTLA), and a requirement of obtaining the table is that the restrictions on copying of content must be respected.
Perhaps as a result of the complaints from the open source community that the system would prevent the use of software such as MythTV - which can already decode the Freesat EPG - Ofcom’s amendment to the BBC licence for the HD multiplex requires that the Huffman tables be made available on a royalty free basis.
It’s not only open source software that could be affected. Equipment that is not Freeview HD certified, like 3View’s forthcoming DVR, will also have to abide by the content protection rules, if it wishes to access the EPG. 3View’s Robert Blackwell told Reg Hardware that he doesn’t anticipate that it’s going to be a problem.
And, of course, any system that uses an alternative EPG source won’t be affected either, though it also won’t be able to take advantage of things like the "accurate recording" and series link information transmitted on Freeview.
The DTLA has laid down ground rules for the restrictions, which are less onerous than some pundits had feared. They say that consumers should always be able to make at least one HD copy of a programme, and that the ‘copy never’ state won’t be permitted.
And perhaps in an acknowledgement of the fact that content isn’t protected elsewhere – notably in the US – they also say that the ‘copy once’ restriction can’t be applied to material that has already been transmitted in HD in major markets without content protection.
That would seem to suggest that major US series like Heroes, for instance, couldn’t be restricted to a single copy, in the UK as they’ve already been broadcast without restrictions in America.
Reg Hardware understands that much – if not all – of the Freeview HD kit on sale already includes the necessary Huffman tables to support the EPG and content restrictions, so it will simply be a matter of the switch being thrown to enable the system.
So, with no restrictions on what you can record on a Freeview HD recorder, no royalty on the Huffman tables needed to decode the EPG, all programmes able to be copied at least once in HD, it looks like Freeview’s control system is unlikely to get in the way of most viewers. But equally, is it really likely to do anything to stop piracy, either?
Although broadcasters have claimed that the desires of Hollywood are a factor in the need to protect content, they’re not the only people who have a vested interest in controlling the duplication of their material. With an increasing amount of material on the UK’s main TV channels being made by independent production companies, even programmes that many viewers may consider as ‘belonging’ to the BBC aren’t actually owned by the Corporation.
For example, popular series like Spooks and Ashes to Ashes are made by independent companies, and recent law changes mean that it’s they who have the rights to long-term exploitation of their shows, rather than the channels that commission them.
The full Ofcom statement is here  (PDF). ®