LOS ANGELES -- Chances are that the high-definition television under the tree this year contains an unadvertised feature -- the ability to respond to commands from broadcasters to prevent your favorite TV shows from being sent over the Internet.
The technology won't be called upon until at least 2005, when broadcasters will likely start including an electronic marker in the digital signal of over-the-air shows. Home electronics will be instructed to encrypt that signal while sending it between devices -- and block it from being sent beyond that home network.
The goal is to save Hollywood studios from losing syndication, DVD and other revenue. But critics say the "broadcast flag" idea is hopelessly flawed, will not stop pirates and is a heavy-handed and unnecessary pre-emptive strike against a problem that may not exist for years.
"How many businesses get to come to the U.S. government and say, 'Please bail me out in advance because maybe 10 years from now my business may be in jeopardy?'" said Fred Von Lohmann, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Electronic 'speed bump'Most consumer electronics makers have known for years that some kind of digital rights management scheme was coming, and they'll be equipping their newest sets to comply with at least one of the agreed-upon protection technologies.
The goal is to place an electronic "speed bump" in the way of consumers who might post one perfect digital copy of a broadcast television show on the Internet. It's one of several strategies by the TV and movie studios to avoid being "Napsterized" like the music industry.
The Federal Communications Commission last month ordered that by July 1, 2005, newly sold devices that capture over-the-air digital broadcasts, such as computers and digital TV sets, must recognize the "broadcast flag" and pass the flagged content only to devices with approved protection schemes.
The flag is only a first step that will eventually include mandated protection built into nearly every home entertainment device, as well as potentially cell phones, handheld computers and even digital cameras.
And while the FCC order did not grant Hollywood studios everything they wanted, it does envision the studios might ask for even more government-mandated technology to place locks on their content.
Copies of today's analog television broadcasts are already available for downloading over the Internet.
The technology to compress much larger digital files into easily swapped bits is still years away, but the studios say protection is needed now to meet the threat.
"If people have the ability to create their own compilations by downloading shows and burning a DVD, it impacts us," said Kevin Tsujihara, executive vice president for corporate business development and strategy at Warner Bros.
The technology the studios have backed is an invisible bit in the stream of zeros and ones that comprise digital TV signals. The broadcast flag would set off an alarm bell in a television, digital tuner, or a PC with a digital tuner card, letting it know that the show must be protected.
But while the FCC approved the flag, it has yet to approve all the copy protection technologies needed to give it teeth.
A group of five companies, including Intel Corp., Sony Corp., Hitachi Ltd., Toshiba Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Corp., have backed a technology that would encrypt the signals and use connections and cables to keep the signals locked up until handed off to another piece of compliant equipment. The scheme, which was approved by the FCC, is called 5C after the five companies that support it.
Four current models of plasma high definition TV sets marketed by Pioneer Electronics, for instance, are flag compatible and also have digital outputs that use 5C technology to encrypt the signal and transport it over cables to devices such as VHS or DVD recorders.
Philips Electronics has proposed a rival system that would embed a digital watermark into the signal that would tell equipment how many times it could copy a program or whether to let it be sent over the Internet.
The FCC ruled that it would consider other copy protection schemes, which could lead to consumer confusion if different devices contain incompatible software.
"Competition is in tension with consumer compatibility," said Andrew Setos, president of engineering at 20th Century Fox and a creator of the broadcast flag. "You can have as much competition as you want, but make sure there is a strong government mandate for fair and honest labeling."
But critics ask a more basic question about flag-based protection plans -- will they work?
"It leaks like a sieve," Lohmann said. "Every DTV tuner sold from now until the mandate goes into effect will continue to work. If a pirate wants to leak content onto the Internet, all they have to do is buy a tuner today and they can do that forever."
The reason is that every digital television sold today can convert digital signals into an analog stream. That signal can then be reconverted back into a digital file, which, while not a perfect copy, is good enough for pirates.
The studios recognize the vulnerability of the "analog hole" and say they are working on technology to plug it -- technology that will need a further federal mandate to be effective.
The studios also acknowledge that the new rules won't have their full effect unless the transition from analog to digital devices is complete. They say the marketplace will persuade enough people to buy new, compliant equipment in time.
They point to DVDs, which come with encryption strong enough to deter most people from copying them, although that system can be thwarted by those determined to do so.
The discussion over technologies to protect digital TV shows is part of a larger government effort to speed the transition to digital television, which includes forcing electronics companies to include digital tuners in all but the smallest TV sets.
The issue is critical to the government, which stands to reap billions of dollars by auctioning off the analog television spectrum for wireless services. Congress has set a goal of 2006 for the digital transition.
The deadline would be pushed back in markets where digital television signals do not reach 85 percent of the populace.