Studios may block TV output, paving way for early VOD

Release dates for video on demand may move up now that movie studios are allowed to remotely control the output on home video systems.

The Federal Communications Commission has finally heard the movie industry’s pleas to enable what’s known as “selectable output control,” the New York Times reports. This technology, which exists on many cable boxes and other home video setups but was inactive until now, lets studios shut off the outputs on HDTVs and DVRs when watching on-demand movies, thereby preventing unauthorized copies.

Studios may block TV output, paving way for early VOD

Hollywood says the decision is a win for customers because it allays piracy fears, and therefore gives studios the confidence to release first-run movies directly to the home, either bypassing movie theaters or giving them a very short window of exclusivity. This is particularly helpful for the elderly, disabled, or caregivers who can’t necessarily leave the house to watch a movie, they say.

But not everyone’s happy with the decision. Public Knowledge claims that pirates have already cracked selectable output control, rendering the anti-piracy argument moot. The group also notes that the selectable output control only applies to cable boxes, and that the studios are doing nothing to accommodate folks who rely on Web-connected set-top boxes such as Roku or Boxee. And with Netflix and Redbox agreeing to delay new releases from three major studios, it’s hard to believe that studios are acting purely in the interest of consumers.

Unsurprisingly, movie theater operators think selectable output control is a bad idea because early home video on demand would cut into their business.

Consumers are basically caught in the middle. Getting new releases earlier at home is great, but ceding control of your hardware to movie studios is not. Public Knowledge has warned that millions of televisions will no longer be able to watch on demand video as they’ll be incompatible with selectable output control.

That’s probably why the FCC is keeping a short leash on the studios. Selectable output control won’t be allowed 90 days after a film is released on demand, or after the film goes to DVD, whichever comes first. And the studios will have to provide reports on the technology’s effects within two years of using it.

I’m at least willing to see how this plays out, but it could be a disaster if as many TVs are hampered as Public Knowledge claims. The FCC should to keep a close eye on what happens and be willing to rescind its decision if the detriments are worse than the benefits.