Consumers have found plenty of reasons not to buy one of those new high-definition digital TV sets, starting with high prices, scant programming and receiver technology that's still maturing.
Tacitly acknowledging these issues, set manufacturers have offered a compromise: Buy an "HDTV-ready" monitor today for the price of a deluxe big-screen TV, and hold off on the purchase of an HDTV receiver. Buyers wouldn't be able to tune in to the new digital channels, but the digital monitor would upgrade the picture quality on conventional analog TV and DVDs.
The problem with this strategy--one that salespeople rarely point out to consumers--is that until recently, set manufacturers and Hollywood studios hadn't settled on a way to transmit programs from a digital monitor to an HDTV receiver. The studios wanted to protect against piracy, whereas the manufacturers wanted to preserve the right to record TV shows for personal use.
The first of those deals has now been struck, and it looks as if HDTV-ready monitors won't, in fact, be ready for all HDTV programs. That's because it calls for copyright-protection technology that the current HDTV equipment doesn't have.
The deal won't affect shows broadcast on local TV stations' digital channels, which offer a smattering of HDTV. Instead, it's most likely to hit pay-per-view events, shows on premium channels, video-on-demand and other programming that carries a fee.
That's bad news for many of the million or so consumers who've already sunk a few thousand dollars in a digital monitor. But the deal also dispels some of the doubt clouding the digital TV market, giving consumers a better idea of what to look for when they finally make the leap to HDTV.
To understand what's going on here, start with the fact that unprotected digital transmissions can be duplicated easily and endlessly with no loss of quality. That's why the seven major Hollywood studios, like many companies whose products can be digitized, fear that pirates will have a field day in the new world of digital networks. As a result, the studios have been reluctant to let their most valuable films be transmitted in HDTV until there's a way to scramble them electronically.
Five leading electronics companies--Hitachi Ltd., Toshiba Corp., Sony Corp., Intel Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., owner of Panasonic--offered a scrambling technology called Digital Transmission Content Protection, or DTCP. The technology would encrypt a digital signal as it was passing from a digital receiver to a monitor, recorder or home network, preventing it from being copied without the copyright owner's permission.
The two sides spent months quibbling about the details before two of the studios--Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and Warner Bros.--agreed to long-term licenses last week. The rest are still negotiating, hoping to impose scrambling on over-the-air digital broadcasts in addition to ones sent via satellite and cable.
The cable and satellite operators aren't parties to this deal-making, but they're bound to be affected by it. The studios are expected to say that their most coveted products won't be available unless they're restricted to viewers with DTCP-compliant receivers or other copyright-protecting equipment. If the cable and satellite companies agree, that spells disappointment for anyone who owns an HDTV-ready monitor.
Here's why. Under the DTCP license, any scrambled HDTV program is subject to something called "image constraint," also known as "down-resing," as in resolution. This provision says that a receiver may transmit such programs only over DTCP-equipped digital connectors, which will impose the studio's rules for copying.
If the monitor doesn't have such a connector, then the program automatically converts from HDTV into a lesser format--something with no more than one-fourth the detail. It would be better than a standard analog picture, but it wouldn't be high resolution.
If a digital set has a built-in HDTV receiver, its owner won't have to worry about image constraint. But the current crop of HDTV-ready monitors, which don't have built-in receivers, also lack digital connectors. That means their owners might not be able to watch premium HDTV programming in true HDTV.
Granted, the studios don't have to invoke "image constraint"--that's a matter to be negotiated by the studios and cable and satellite companies. But with cable, satellite, Internet and broadcasting companies all competing for the studios' programming, it's a seller's market.
The first DTCP-compliant products are expected to hit stores this year, including Sony HDTV-ready monitors. Other manufacturers have announced plans for digital connectors on their monitors, and Mitsubishi plans to release an HDTV receiver insert for its "HDTV-upgradable" sets next year.
For consumers who can no longer resist the urge to buy an HDTV set, the least risky path is clear: find an HDTV monitor that has a DTCP-compliant digital connector. The DTCP protocol requires a connector described in engineering jargon as "IEEE 1394," but it's more commonly called "FireWire."
The studios probably will embrace other scrambling techniques that work with alternative digital connections, such as DVI. Those products are on their way as well. But as the recent licensing deals make clear, the studios are poised to keep premium HDTV programming off of analog connections. And as a consequence, any monitor that doesn't have some kind of digital input might not be truly HDTV ready.
Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the convergence of entertainment and technology.