Ars Technica, Selectable Output Control and The Eternal Optimists


In a blog post last Friday afternoon, NCTA’s Kyle McSlarrow highlighted cable’s support for a waiver of the FCC’s so-called “selectable output control” rule which would encourage movie studios to provide cable subscribers with access to first-run movies much sooner than today’s often lengthy release window.

It seems that post has now garnered the attention of Ars Technica in a larger missive that puts the Motion Picture Association of America at the heart of a vast conspiracy to Take Over the Internet (or something like that).

I’d like to tackle their comments, and dive a bit more into the benefits that selectable output control brings to consumers.

It seems that Public Knowledge and Ars would like us to focus on the number of people who would be unable to view content protected by SOC.  We’re optimists, we prefer to focus on the entertainment options available to everyone else.

Let’s look again at Kyle’s iPod analogy:

When Apple introduced the “Classic” iPod with the ability to rent movies, earlier generation iPods still functioned well, played music, and (for 5G iPods) played video, but they didn’t play rentals. Apple’s release didn’t suddenly render your older version useless, but you needed to purchase the Classic to get access to the video rental library. So while your “older” device may not have all of the features of the latest model, it certainly still works as intended when you bought it and isn’t “screwed up.”

If you follow the argument made by Ars/Public Knowledge, there would have been a massive outcry against the new iPod and its rental feature.  Instead, here is what Ars itself had to say on the subject:

Apple has answered the calls of consumers and critics with a slick, friendly movie rental section. After playing with it for a week, I’m still inclined to say that it’s off to a strong start. Though other services may have a superior catalogs (for now) or integration with other living room devices, none reach iTunes’ signature ease-of-use or integration with the world’s most popular digital media players.

And what did Ars say about restrictions on the use of the new iPod?

As for why movie rentals have these specific new DRM rules applied to them, they’re clearly conditions enforced by studios interested in locking down their rental content in every way possible. A crack for iTunes DRM is a scary prospect for execs interested in protecting their content and getting paid their dues, and a movie that typically sells for $15-20 at retail getting cracked for as little as $2.99 must be even more insomnia-inducing. These were likely some of the compromises Apple had to make in order to score all the major studios, and perhaps to launch a digital rental section in the first place.

Ars clearly recognizes that protection of content played a critical role in content owners being open to providing that content via the iTunes store.  They are exactly right that such protections were likely a prerequisite for iTunes rentals launching at all.  What Ars is now arguing against, however, is exactly the same protection being afforded to exactly the same content but just on a different platform, Video-on-Demand (VOD).

Movie studios are unwilling to make blockbuster movies available  prior to DVD release  if they don’t have some assurance that the movie won’t be copied and widely distributed.

That fact, however, does not “break” all the TVs now being viewed any more than the iTunes rentals “broke” previous versions of the iPod.

I had a 5G iPod when the Classic came out.  I now have a Classic iPod (I like to watch rental movies on it when I travel).  My kids now have a 5G iPod.  It still plays purchased movies. It still plays music. It still plays games.  It’s not broken at all.  In fact, since Apple makes many of the movies in its library available for sale before they’re available for rent, that old 5G can actually play more content than my Classic.

The world of selectable output control works exactly the same way.  That TV in your den that’s connected with analog cables can still view most of the vast array of “on demand” content.  It can still play all the TV programs you’re used to.  It can still be connected to your DVD player, your TiVo, and even your PC.  What it won’t be able to do is play certain new content offerings without an HDMI connection.

Does that sound broken to you?

  • SteveAK

    It will not explode the TV, but it will break compatibility. I hate to say this, but you guys seem to think you have a legal right to my money – fewer features at a higher price on fewer devices.

    Where’s the entire history of James Bond in better-than-DVD on a single Blu-Ray disc or two – massive cost savings on both your end and ours! Where are the low-price, small size, high quality x264 rips for sale? It’s easy enough to do – any moderately technical computer user willing to break the DMCA can do this themselves, but it’s apparently too difficult for the motion picture industry.

    As a consumer, all my money is going to indies and my favorite gaming developers. I will not give a single dollar to you guys to lobby Congress with for more bad law!

  • Michael Turk

    Break compatibility how? The service doesn’t yet exist because there is no protection. Granting the waiver brings an array of new possibilities. So how does that break anything?

  • Ryan

    So let’s revisit what SOC means: Selectable Output Control. The keywords there are “Selectable” and “Control”. My major concern here is not what the movie industry is trying to do as far as pre-release movies on cable television. My concern lies with the can of worms which will be opened by allowing broadcasters to utilize this flag (a flag that never should have been developed in the first place). Once the foot is in the door, who knows what kind of lobbying the movie and television industries will do, what kind of legislation they will try to have passed. This isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when. Your industry (as well as the movie industry) has demonstrated time and time again its inability to handle, and fear of, change. Instead of creating innovative new services and technologies to bring in customers, you focus your time and money on hiring lobbyists to force anti-consumer legislation down our throats. You use a government system designed for the people, against them.

    So why did I say SOC should never have been created? After all, I understand the position of the movie and TV industries here and would definitely welcome early release of new movies to television. The problem is that I don’t TRUST either of your industries. Whether you feel it’s deserved or not, you’re reputation is terrible (although not as bad as the music industry) and it’s quite evident that you care less about the value you bring to your customers than how much money you can suck out of them. I don’t want/need/deserve you telling me how to watch my TV, but most of all, I don’t TRUST you. Do something to change that image and maybe we can talk…

  • Paul Rodriguez

    Hey, SteveAK:

    You can break a TV, but you can’t break compatibility. CDs didn’t break my turntable. Sure, the cable industry doesn’t have a right to your money. If you don’t want the service, feel free to cancel.

    But you also seem to be complaining that if the price for content is too high, then piracy is a handy alternative.

  • Ryan

    Oh, so making copies of content you’ve purchased, in order to play on a device of your choosing for personal use is piracy? I know I know, but the DMCA says so! We all..or at least I know how much of a joke that legislation is. It’s a perfect example of what I mentioned in my first post, the TV/Movie industries’ self-serving, anti-consumer interests being thrust upon a public through the use of their own government.

    How about these industries treat their consumers fairly, not like a herd of cattle they can milk for all they’re worth. Again, it comes down to respect and trust. If these industries were actually respectable and proved that they could be trusted, things would be different. All they’ve proven is that they’re ignorant and stubborn, and love to stifle innovation in order to keep the cash cow mooing.

    (Never thought I’d talk about cows so much in a post such as this)

  • Michael Turk

    Well, for starters, nobody is talking about purchased content. Subscribing to cable is not the same as purchasing content. If you order up a DVD from NetFlix, do you consider that a purchase and make copies of the DVD that arrives?

    So Paul’s statement is exactly right. That is exactly what fed Napster. People didn’t like paying for an entire CD when all they wanted was one or two songs, so they saw Napster as a viable alternative.

    The problem is a certain group of people feel that they are entitled to this content for free regardless of how much it costs to make and distribute it, and without concern for the intellectual property of its creators.

  • Moose


    Reducing or eliminating the time it takes for a movie to make it from the movie theater to your TV set is anti-consumer? It’s already being done for some indie films, only because there’s not much market for pirated indie movies, and the consumer is worse off for that? Of course not. The only people who should be crying here are the movie theater owners. Obviously you have your own axe to grind and will use all the tortured logic necessary to make it sound anti-competitive.

  • Ryan


    SteveAK’s original post mentions having higher quality movies (Bond in particular) on a single Blu-ray and also having low-cost ripped copies, so they can use it in a way that works best for them (say transferring to a mobile device). Paul then responded to SteveAK, with the comment about piracy as an alternative for content that is priced too high. So purchased content was talked about and that’s what I was referring to.

    To answer your question: no, I don’t consider ordering a movie from Netflix a “purchase” and I would not make copies of disks rented from them, as that would truly be stealing. I’m talking about making copies of a Blu-ray you purchased, for use either as a backup or to make copies to play on mobile players. The DMCA says that is illegal and that’s ridiculous. I should be able to play that content on the device of my choosing, for personal use, without being charged extra for it (or having it considered illegal). In any case, that isn’t the topic of discussion here so I’m sorry.

  • Michael Turk

    Ryan –

    SteveAK’s specific comment was “you guys seem to think you have a legal right to my money – fewer features at a higher price on fewer devices.” Since this is the cable industry’s blog, and the cable industry doesn’t sell DVDs or any other permanent ownership of content, I think Paul (rightly) assumed his complaint was with cable’s prices/features.

    As a result, Paul asked exactly the right question. If the cost of that content is too high, is that an argument that piracy is somehow legitimate?

    As to your point, you’re right. Whether the DMCA goes too far or not isn’t the issue here. What is at issue is the very specific question of whether content owners can be assured of some level of protection that would make them comfortable distributing that content via a new avenue.

    As we mentioned, this question was solved for iTunes rentals to the satisfaction of both consumers and content owners. Some people with earlier version iPods were unhappy with being unable to take advantage of the new service with older equipment. However, the success of iTunes rentals clearly demonstrates the potential of these new delivery models.

  • Ryan

    To both Michael and Moose:

    I do have an axe to grind as I feel that much of (if not all of) the legislation that the entertainment industries are trying/have tried to push through the government is anti-consumer (I never said anti-competitive).

    However, in this case I’m not arguing the idea of having pre-release movies on TV as a bad thing or anti-consumer. What I’m arguing and what I’m VERY skeptical of is the use of the SOC flag in order to manage the recording of these shows. That flag worries me because while the use in this instance may just be to protect the content industry, I don’t trust them to not abuse it in the future.

    Once the foot is in the door, it’s hard to get it back out. It may not even be the movie industry. Once SOC is being used in some form, it’s only that much easier to justify another use for it.

    One question I have is why can’t these movies be released on current systems, such as On-Demand or Pay-Per-View? It seems like those systems are already in place to handle any issues that would require the use of the SOC flag. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought that you couldn’t record Pay-Per-View shows (I’m not sure about on-demand).

  • dmetzler

    “The problem is a certain group of people feel that they are entitled to this content for free regardless of how much it costs to make and distribute it, and without concern for the intellectual property of its creators.”

    This is exactly the problem! You’re lumping th cost of making the content with the cost of distributing it. That’s unethical, and wrong. And it’s the reason why nobody outside of the industry wants the industry to be able to control SOC.

    The cost of making the content is one thing. The cost of distributing it is another. Distribution is and should cost essentially nothing. Anyone can do it cheaply.

    You are advocating the the cost of making it should not be seperate from distribution. In essence you are advocating that price fixing is OK. That’s wrong!

    If you’re in the entertainment industry, go ahead and create content, or not. If you get someone to pay you for it, great. If not, don’t do it unless you want to. You can sign your content to prove you are the original producer. If your content has protections in it great… (See if I buy it!) Once you build the content you’re done! Get your money before handing over the content, then hand it over and go home.

    But, don’t limit the copying. That’s distribution, and if I can do it cheaper than you, then I should be able to do it. I’m not claiming to have created it. I’m just distributing it.

    As long as the entertainment business is in the business of extortion, they can’t be trusted with any control of my devices. If they aren’t in the business of extortion they don’t need control of my devices.

  • dmetzler

    By the way I realize this is not how current laws read.
    And I don’t totally boycott the entertainment industry, but I don’t buy CDs or DVDs right now. I do go to the theater occasionally, when something is really good, and I can stomache the feeling of being screwed over, but for the most part I miss out on a lot of content that might be really good. This is because I’m too scared to record anything, but I have a job. I’m not always able to see things when they are available. I used to have a decent selection of CDs until my kids trashed them. I’m scared to download music or video for fear of being sued by the Music Mafia (RIAA). That leaves me a disgrunteled consumer who gets disgusted by outdated Copy Right laws, DRM, and all the other garbage that has corrupted the entertainment industry. I still listen to radio which will no doubt be phased out some day for a model where I pay each time musical note is recieved by my ear. If the medical industry operated this way, we’d all be forced to wear pacemakers that can be shutoff remotely, and we’d be forced to pay per heart beat to live.

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