net.wars: Divided by a common television

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 11 March 2005

Last week's net.wars talked about the technical standards in progress for  Digital Video Broadcasting, but what was equally on display at the recent Dublin conference was the utter clash of cultures between the US and Europe over the future of television. There have always been, of course, diverging technical standards: the US picking the technically inferior  NTSC instead of  PAL or SECAM

Wendy M Grossman

But the bigger difference is cultural. The biggest broadcaster in the UK is still the  BBC, funded by the license fee levied on every television owner; the biggest broadcasters in the US are all commercial.

That much is obvious. What did surprise me was how advanced the plans are for high-definition television are in Europe: no one seems to be terribly interested. My US friends have been salivating over the prospect of high-definition television for at least five years; my British friends never mention it. Makes sense: the PAL picture British viewers get from the PAL standard is already good enough that the case isn't terribly compelling, where NTSC, especially at the huge screen sizes favored today, looks pretty poor. TV sizes are getting bigger even in Britain , but the smaller house sizes here mean you just don't have room for a television set big enough to make PAL look bad.

The other thing British friends object to about high-definition is the copy protection that's being built in, down to the  plug level. The DVB folks were saying last week that CPCM (Content Protection/Copy Management) will make it possible to send content unhindered all around your home freely, where now you can't. But this will not be true, it is clear, in my home as it is presently constituted, where the data stream goes from the VCR over some tiny ("Rabbit") wires to all the TVs: the data stream will be encrypted and the destination TV won't be able to unscramble it. So the price I would have to pay for high-definition digital television and recordings could run as high as: three TV sets or set top boxes, three DVD players (two in computers), a TiVo, and a VCR.

In one sense, these guys are just like us. They travel, they have computers and PDAs, televisions and TiVos. They want, as one said to me, to be able to access their DVD collections from their hotel rooms or wherever they are on  vacation. They want those home servers (the same terabyte affairs some of my friends are building even now) to be accessible anywhere, any time, from any device. But in another respect they aren't just like us: they see the Internet as the enemy.

They are, of course, right. But not in the sense we usually talk about here when we whine about the industry's desire to turn broadcasting into a sealed box, up-ending the decision in the Betamax case. Spencer Stephens, vice-president for technology at Warner Brothers, representing the  North American Broadcasters Association , painted a picture of a dire future. If, he argued, viewers can receive digital TV broadcasts unencrypted and unprotected, they can easily redistribute it. Vast numbers of people can access the unprotected content. With advances in processing power, storage capacity, and broadband access - at this point, he switched to all capital letters and, if memory does not fail, bright red - "EVERYONE BECOMES A BROADCASTER".

And this is bad?

"The BBC," he said, "must move from monologue to dialogue."  In the past, he said, the BBC "was paternalistic. We decided what to broadcast and when, and the audience was supposed to sit back and be grateful. "Get away, he went on, from the "synthetic world of the TV studio". Interaction "must be about more than mundane voting or buying." In fact, the BBC is doing trials exploring how the audience can record on 3g mobile phones content that can become "critical" to the delivery of TV news. "The license payer becomes a creative part of the broadcasting process." He called it "post-deferential involvement."

Now, there is space in the world for both these approaches to the business of providing televisual information. Certainly, for entertainment, you just can't beat a good story-teller (no matter how much money reality TV programs make this year). But news is different. As Tom Stoppard had his photographer character observe in his 1978 play Night and Day, you can have thousands of quids' worth of lenses and still be trumped by the guy with an old  Kodak Brownie (flash) if he's in the right place and you're not. And anyone who's seen mainstream commercial TV news lately, particularly on the US networks, knows how thin its content and coverage have become; most of my US friends these days say they get their news from The Daily Show

So you kind of wanted to stand up and cheer the BBC. If the commercial broadcasters are Microsoft, it can be the open-source movement.Compare and contrast to Pat Loughrey, director of nations and regions for the BBC. In his keynote speech, Loughrey painted a picture of what local news might become if you can harness widespread, cheap digital cameras, a mobile population, and a technical infrastructure including message boards, blogging, and video editing.

Are you a broadcaster yet? - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).