FreeviewHD content control – don’t panic

Some of the most significant complaints about the content control system on FreeviewHD have been from the open source movement, who feel that they’ll be unnecessarily locked out of making equipment.

I must say that I think some of the quotes have been rather over-eggging the pudding, suggesting that there’s an army out there of people who are modifiying existing equipment to provide things like extra services for the deaf, for instance. And I don’t think it’s really terribly helpful to try and conjure up scenarios that many people will instantly think are far-fetched.

As some will know, I run a website for Topfield PVRs. That’s one of the most user-modifiable digital TV recorders on the market at the moment, and looking at the various statistics from the website, I’d hazard a guess that the majority of people don’t even bother tweaking that unit. Of those that do, only a tiny minority ever delve into the programming side of things – which is true of many systems. Much is made of the open source nature of Linux, but it’s a tiny fraction of the community that ever gives anything back.

Now, that’s not an argument for saying that standards shouldn’t be open, or that the open source community should be locked out of things like Freeview HD, but I do think that it’s necessary to keep a reasonable perspective on these things – some of the reports about content control gave the impression that if only it weren’t for this, an army of people would be attacking set top boxes with soldering irons and modifying them. I know that’s not an accurate representation, and you probably do too, but in talking up the consequences too much, I think goodwill can be lost.

Don’t panic

And, in any case, I don’t think that – for the next few years at least – this is a major issue, certainly not on Freeview HD. Firstly, the control mechanism is the same as for Freesat, and open source projects like Myth have successfully managed to work out how to decode the Freesat EPG.

Even if that were impossible on Freeview HD, for technical or commercial reasons – a company might not want to be seen to have reverse engineered the Huffman tables that are being used, for example – it’s not the end of the world.

That’s because of the nature of what’s actually on Freeview HD, and the fact that the EPG data for the standard definition broadcast isn’t changing at all. Right now, Freeview HD offers BBC HD, ITV1HD and Channel 4HD. Later this year, BBC One HD will be joining, and in 2012, there may be a fifth channel. That could be Five HD, or it could be something else, but it’s likely to be something from one of the PSBs, and I suspect it may well be an HD version of an existing channel.

Where does that leave us? Well, in the short to medium term, since I don’t think anyone else will launch HD channels until sometime after 2012, of the four channels on Freeview HD, three will be simulcasts of their SD equivalents. And the EPG data for those will be broadcast in the usual way, complete with series link information, and accurate recording triggers. And since it’s a simultaneous broadcast, wouldn’t it be pretty simple for software to just take the EPG data from the standard def channel, and use it for the HD one? About the only thing you’ll miss out on is the extra information that indicates if a channel is broadcast using surround sound or not.

That leaves the BBC HD channel, and it’s fairly easy to get an EPG feed for that from the internet, especially for an open source project. Of course, you won’t necessarily have the series link information, or accurate recording triggers, which is a pity. Some of that, perhaps, may be possible to recreate where a programme on BBC HD is simulcast with one of the other SD channels. Accurate recording triggers are handy, but with the advent of BBC One HD, I suspect there will be fewer instances where programming on the HD channel is likely to ‘slip’ due to overrunning events like tennis matches.


Incidentally, this EPG issue is also one that’s been vexing people regarding the 3View box, with people worrying about availability of HD channel EPG information, should they not be able to use the official broadcast one. 3View reports that they do have agreement to use it – while boxes with the FreeviewHD logo have to have the Huffman tables in it, the reverse doesn’t apply; you just have to agree to play by the rules to get access to the tables necessary to unpack the EPG. And, even if that weren’t the case, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, I really don’t think this need be a major issue, at least in the next few years.

That may change, of course, if lots of other HD-only channels launch after switchover is complete, and a bit more openness never goes amiss, but right now, I don’t think there’s any  great cause to panic, or to believe that there will be no way that open source projects can display an EPG for Freeview’s HD channels.

3 Replies to “FreeviewHD content control – don’t panic”

  1. I agree that that the extent of Freeview HD’s content control system has been overstated by many and that this is counter productive. Certainly in their current form there isn’t much to worry about and a little extra work will get most open source projects access to the guide (or, as you say, the guide can just be acquired elsewhere)

    But surely the fact that these measures can be so (relatively) easily worked around makes them utterly useless? I mean if the content is broadcast unencrypted, then even without any electronic epg, a suitable tuner could record it by putting times in manually (with a bit of leeway for overrunning)

    I just don’t understand what they (the content creators and distributors who presumably wanted it) think will be achieved by this. I’ve yet to come across a show that’s come from the states to UK terrestrial TV that isn’t available as a torrent long before it’s shown on TV here (and as I understand it, unless things change in the US most of these shows won’t be protected from copying here either) As for UK shows, well, again, if the content protection is bypassed so easily – what exactly are they achieving?

    As far as content control goes, it’s pretty light and it’s hard to see it having any affect 99.99% of legitimate consumers. But it’s also hard to see how it might have any affect on copyright infringement (which I assume is the goal).

  2. Many have pointed out the ease with which some of these restrictions can be circumvented, but I suspect that’s not entirely the point.
    Unless they’re utterly unrealistic, most broadcasters and programme makers accept that there will be some piracy – and that, presumably is why there are the rules about flagging content in the UK that’s previously been broadcast without protection elsewhere in HD.
    Perhaps – and a lawyer would be the best person to ask about this sort of thing – the feeling is that though it can be circumvented, the fact that you will have to at least think about it a bit will make it easier to build a case when people are found distributing infringing material.
    If you can show that someone’s taken active steps to make a recording in a way that can be copied, it will surely make it much harder for them to argue that they didn’t do anything wrong.
    How often someone may actually be caught and prosecuted for this sort of thing is another matter entirely, of course. Judging by the number of people selling knock-off DVDs in car parks, being caught is not considered a lively eventuality.

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