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Monday, June 9, 2008

MPAA wants to stop DVRs from recording some movies

At the request of theatrical film makers, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday quietly launched a proceeding on whether to let video program distributors remotely block consumers from recording recently released movies on their DVRs. The technology that does this is called Selectable Output Control (SOC), but the FCC restricts its use. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) wants a waiver on that restriction in the case of high-definition movies broadcast prior to their release as DVDs.

"The Petitioners' theatrical movies are too valuable in this early distribution window to risk their exposure to unauthorized copying," MPAA wrote to the FCC last month. "Distribution over insecure outputs would facilitate the illegal copying and redistribution of this high value content, causing untold damage to the DVD and other 'downstream' markets." Less than a month after the request, the FCC has given MPAA a public comment period on the question that will last through July 7.

Expedited distribution—with one, big caveat

MPAA has pressed its Petition for Expedited Special Relief on behalf of Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal City Studios Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Brothers. How did these media companies get an FCC proceeding so fast? Ars bets that hiring former FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy as their attorney helped. Abernathy supported former FCC Chair Michael Powell's drastic relaxation of the agency's media ownership rules in 2003, along with Kevin Martin, now head of the agency.

Movies go through a timeline of staged releases that lasts about three years. First they go to theaters; 60 days after that they start showing up in airplanes and hotels; in 120 days from their theatrical release they transfer to DVD and Internet download; about a month later to video on demand/pay-per-view; by the end of the year to premium subscription systems like HBO and Showtime; and eventually to basic cable and free TV.

MPAA says these studios want to release their movies to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) "significantly earlier and prior to DVD release"—although the trade groups' filing won't say exactly how much sooner. But in exchange for the accelerated service, MPAA wants permission to obtain SOC blocking of recording capabilities. The group promises that once said movies have reached the home video sale/rental stage, the blocking will stop.

The movie lobby wants a waiver from FCC rules prohibiting MVPDs from adding code to digital video streams, that, among other restrictions, could block copying. Here is the rule: "A covered entity shall not attach or embed data or information with commercial audiovisual content, or otherwise apply to, associate with, or allow such data to persist in or remain associated with such content, so as to prevent its output through any analog or digital output authorized or permitted under license, law or regulation governing such covered product."

MPPA notes that the Commission did say in 2003 that it would consider adjusting this policy around SOC. "We nonetheless recognize that selectable output control functionality might have future applications that could potentially be advantageous to consumers," MPAA observes that the FCC declared in a late 2003 Report and Order, "such as facilitating new business models."

We're here to help

MPAA argues that, in addition to getting first-run movies to the public sooner, giving movie studios a break on this issue could also aid the DTV transition. The enhanced service "will encourage the purchase of HDTV sets by consumers, and thereby ensure that a greater number of citizens have the necessary equipment to receive broadcast digital programming by February 17, 2009."

But unquoted in MPAA's petition is this passage from the same FCC Report and Order: "We also recognize consumers’ expectations that their digital televisions and other equipment will work to their full capabilities, and the potential harm to the DTV transition if those expectations are frustrated," the Commission observed. "In particular, we are concerned that selectable output control would harm those 'early adopters' whose DTV equipment only has component analog inputs for high definition display, placing these consumers at risk of being completely shut off from the high-definition content they expect to receive."

Needless to say, this proposal is likely to get a very cold reception from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). EFF already warns that SOC and "down resolution"—strategically lowering the level of digital quality—could undermine HDTV. "Many current and novel devices rely on unrestricted outputs, particularly component analog connections," EFF says.

Not surprisingly, the Home Recording Rights Coalition (HRRC) opposes SOC too. "In the long term, imposition of SOC could have the effect of driving from the market any home interface that supports home recording," the group observes. Fears that MPAA's proposal represents a foot in the door to much wider interference with consumer digital applications may also play a role in this discussion.

The FCC wants comments and oppositions to MPAA's proposal by June 25 and replies to comments by July 7.

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Will the Olympics Not Be Televised?

(BEIJING) — Television networks that will broadcast the Beijing Olympics to billions around the world are squaring off with local organizers over stringent security that threatens coverage of the games in two months.

Differences over a wide range of issues — from limits on live coverage in Tiananmen Square to allegations that freight shipments of TV broadcasting equipment are being held up in Chinese ports — surfaced in a contentious meeting late last month between Beijing organizers and high-ranking International Olympic Committee officials and TV executives — including those from NBC.

In response to the complaints from broadcasters, Sun Weijia, head of media operations for the Beijing organizers, asked them to put it in writing, only to draw protests about mounting paperwork.

"I think what I have heard here are just a number of conditions or requirements that are just not workable," said IOC official Gilbert Felli, according to minutes of the May 29 meeting obtained by The Associated Press. "There are a number of things that are just not feasible."

Despite the outburst, Sun asked again to have the complaints in writing.

"I just wish to have a kind of document to help me identify the key points," he said, drawing immediate protest.

"How many times do we have to do that?" asked Manolo Romero, an Olympic broadcasting official.

With time running out before the games open on Aug. 8, the minutes hint that procedures broadcasters have used in other Olympics are conflicting with China's authoritarian government. Some plans are months behind schedule, which could force broadcasters to compromise coverage plans.

The meeting in Beijing included representatives of nine broadcasters, each of which has paid for the rights to broadcast the Olympics. Top IOC officials and Beijing organizers were also on hand in what one TV executive termed an "emergency meeting."

Non-rights holding broadcasters — news organizations that have not bought TV rights to cover Olympic action at the venues — did not attend the meeting but also are concerned about delays and security restrictions.

"We are two weeks away from putting equipment on a shipment and we have no clearance to operate, or to enter the country or a frequency allocation," said Sandy MacIntyre, director of news for AP Television News. APTN is the television arm of The Associated Press.

Unnerved by protests on international legs of the Olympic torch relay following the outbreak of deadly rioting March 14 in Tibet, China's communist government seems to be backtracking on some promises to let reporters work as they have in previous Olympics.

The government also has tightened visa rules in the last several months. One target has been students. The government fears many would side with activist groups if protests break out.

The minutes of the meeting show behind-the-scenes dialogue that differs markedly from the IOC's public statements about smooth cooperation with Beijing organizers. In an interview, one broadcaster who attended the meeting summed up the problem.

"The Chinese are very concerned about something going wrong — and so they are in Olympic gridlock," said John Barton, director of sport for the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, which represents broadcasters in 57 countries.

"This is the greatest moment in their sporting history," Barton said. "They've built a stage on which they want to perform, but they are rather queasy about how it should be shown."

"They are suffocating the television coverage in the crazy pursuit of security. They can't secure the event. Nothing can be totally secure, yet they are trying to do that."

Chinese officials say more than 500,000 people will handle security during the games, equaling the number of foreign visitors expected. Public security officials said a few days ago that protests won't be allowed — unless protesters get a permit — with arrests or expulsion likely. Some athletes in Beijing also are expected to speak out against Chinese policies on Tibet or Darfur.

The rights-holding broadcasters generally lauded the organizers' preparations, but worried about being stuck in a quagmire of security requirements. The meeting was held under the auspices of Beijing Olympic Broadcasting — also known as BOB.

BOB is a joint venture between the Beijing Olympic organizers and an IOC subsidiary. BOB coordinates and provides technical services for the television networks with rights to broadcast the Olympics, such as NBC.

Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, told the meeting the issues "can be solved" and suggested the prospects are better than Athens or Turin, where he described some unspecified problems as "irresolvable."

"This can be the world's greatest Olympics," Zenkel said, crediting Beijing organizers. But he said certain "obstacles" are hindering the organizers.

"I don't know who they are or how to get to them collectively, but we must get to them," Zenkel added. "Because these games will suffer and these problems will be presented to the world and they don't do justice to these Olympics. ... This is a big day for China and the Olympics and it may be lost if there isn't any immediate change or movement made by the government, or whoever. It has to happen. We hope the wakeup call is heard."

Several TV executives were upset there might be no live coverage from Tiananmen Square. This is a change from two months ago when IOC officials in Beijing said China had agreed to allow live coverage. Broadcasters also have been told there's unlikely to be live coverage from the Forbidden City.

Chinese police fear both might be venues for activists' protests, which would be a public relations disaster if demonstrations — and police crackdowns — are beamed around the world.

"For us to potentially not be able to do live reports from Tiananmen — the most iconic place in China — is a disgrace," said Scott Moore, executive director of Canada's CBC Sports. "I've been told that to do business in China, you have to have patience. We don't have time to have patience. The games have begun for us already."

TV executives appear skeptical they will be able to deliver the kind of coverage they have in past games. Some say Chinese officials are requiring that forms be filled out specifying where satellite trucks will be each day of the games. The IOC says about 2,000 TV trucks usually go in and out of Olympic venues every day during the games.

These kind of restrictions could make it very difficult for TV crews to move quickly around the sprawling city to cover breaking news. Broadcasters also have been denied permits to record aerial views of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Relaxing the rules and allowing Olympic broadcasters to avoid government censorship was one of the concessions China made to land the games in 2001. Now officials appear to be nervous about it, with TV executives complaining that high-tech TV equipment has been held up in Chinese ports.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee, denied there were delays in getting equipment into China.

"As far as we know, the importation of broadcast equipment has been going smoothly," he said.

Any interference with news coverage will be at odds with promises made seven years ago when Beijing was awarded the games. At the time, Wang Wei, the executive vice president of the Beijing organizing committee, said the news media would have "complete freedom to report on anything when they come to China."

The government enacted a law 18 months ago giving foreign reporters "free access" to report. The law has been helpful, although some areas of the country — such as Tibet — are still off limits. Reporters still complain of harassment, particularly away from Beijing where provincial authorities seem unaware of the new rules.

"In Athens we were pretty much allowed to film whatever we wanted, wherever and whenever," said Tomoyo Igaya, senior program director for Japan's NHK Sports and head of the Japan consortium, an Olympic pool that represents NHK and five Japanese commercial broadcasters.

Igaya attended the May 29 meeting and told colleagues she thought the disputes could be resolved. She also raised the specter of more pressure if they are not. She hinted at unspecified "legal-financial" action.

Igaya said China might be forced to loosen up with more than 30,000 accredited and non-accredited journalists expected to cover the games, which Chinese officials hope will polish the country's image as the rising political and economic power of the 21st century.

"We've been talking about this internally for some time," Igaya said. "Maybe when there are thousands of broadcasters and press in Beijing, maybe they won't be able to keep an eye on every single person. There will be just so many. But on the other hand, it's China — you know the population of the country. You could maybe have people keeping an eye on every journalist and broadcaster. Who knows."

"I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that everything goes well."

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Sam Raimi Wants to Direct 'Spider-Man 4'

Last summer, it looked like Sam Raimi was ready to walk away from the Spider-Man franchise, but he's singing a different tune this summer. Coming Soon recently talked to Raimi about his status as the most profitable superhero series ever gears up for its fourth film.
"James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) is writing the script and I'm excited to read it. I think it's going to be done in a few months," Raimi said. A year ago, Marvel and company were hunting down a new writer, based less on where they knew the characters were headed and more on where the new writer wanted to take the story. Raimi seems excited about Vanderbilt's concept, adding, "I'm hoping it's as great as our discussions were about it. Then Raimi officially threw his hat in the ring again: "I love Spider-Man. I'm hoping I'm well rested enough to embrace it and I'm hoping Sony wants me to do it. If all of those things come together, I would love to do it. There are a lot of unknowns about the future." As for those of us who would like nothing more than this series to progress without Kirsten Dunst, though, a bit of bad news. Raimi doesn't envision changing up his cast. "I'd hate to re-cast anybody in the future, I can't imagine that." Then you, sir, are in the minority.

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Iron Man's Repulsors Might Set on The Mandarin for Sequel

Tos50With The Incredible Hulk tracking surprisingly well and threatening to smash Iron Man's box office records next weekend, director Jon Favreau is keeping Tony Stark and company in the news by hinting at the plot of an Iron Man sequel -- and the possible appearance of the Mandarin.

"I'm glad that we didn't try to attack the Mandarin the first time around," Favreau told Superhero Hype. "There is a lot that is very relevant about that character, in the pool of the landscape that we find ourselves in, but there is something off-putting and distasteful about the way that the Mandarin had been presented back in the '60s. I don't think that is relevant anymore. How do you maintain the core spirit of what makes that villain so formidable without having something that either seemed out of our reality, as far as what his abilities are, or the way he is depicted?"

When the original film made mention of the terrorist organization The 10 Rings, it was a clear reference to Marvel history and the alien artifacts the Mandarin discovered before beginning his career of oppression and supervillainy. It seemed like a pretty obvious clue from Favreau and his writers that Iron Man's arch-nemesis would appear in a sequel.

Now, with the director saying he needs "heavy duty, heavyweight bad guys" to confront Iron Man in the next film, Mandarin seems all but a lock. There's no mention of casting yet for the Far Eastern troublemaker, but that will have to break soon, as Robert Downey Jr. will be ready to begin filming in the golden titanium suit again after he finishes playing Hugh Hefner in the biopic he's reportedly considering.

Image courtesy Marvel.com

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The World's Most Eligible Royals

pic In Pictures: The World's Most Eligible Royals

"Is This The One?," a British headline blared on a clear September morning 27 years ago above a picture of a diffident kindergarten teacher named Lady Diana Spencer. The blue-blooded 19-year-old was being courted by Prince Charles, the then 32-year-old heir to the British throne. Five months later, the pair announced their engagement, inciting a media maelstrom that would, quite literally, haunt them for years to come.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed. But heavier still are the heads of young, unmarried royals, the freshest of meat for the perennially ravenous international paparazzi. Rich and privileged, they are real-life fairy tale characters whose pedigree crowns them the world's most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. And dating one--no small feat, given their highly protected status--is a recipe for instant celebrity.

Such was the case for Kate Middleton, the college sweetheart of Princess Diana's dashing first-born son William. In March the international press devoured the scuttlebutt that William, second in line to the throne, would pop the question to Middleton, a chestnut-haired commoner with a thousand-watt smile.

A month later came breathless reports that the pair had split after three years of dating. (That inspired the requisite post-mortems analyzing what went wrong.) Then in August the pair were said to be vacationing together in a remote island in the Seychelles--dubbed "Love Island" by British tabloid The Sun, one of the scores of media outlets that feasted upon the news. ( The Sun also ran a retouched photo of the iconic surfside embrace between Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster the 1953 romance From Here to Eternity, subbing Kate's and Will's heads with the lead actors.)

All the while, British bookies placed odds on a royal marriage. Woolworths commissioned William and Kate memorabilia in anticipation of an engagement. And a slew of Middleton-inspired fan sites cropped up on the Web. (There's even a fake MySpace page devoted to her. Regarding the split, the ersatz and grammatically challenged Middleton writes, "I am very upset about this, but we will remain friends, so that is good.")

Matches among the monarchs are regular tabloid fare in Europe, thanks to its bounty of royal families. (At least 50 royal lines dot Europe.) Long gone are the days when royals dated only those of similar status. Prince William's cousin Beatrice, the daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, is said to be dating American Dave Clark, a young employee of Sir Richard Branson's space tourism venture Virgin Galactic. (The pair were purportedly set up by her cousin Prince William.) Daniel Westling, said to be the longtime beau of Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria, owns a chain of gyms.

Periodically making headlines stateside is the House of Grimaldi, more familiar to Americans as the royal family of Monaco. Following the death of Prince Rainier III two years ago, Monaco is now ruled by Prince Albert, the only son of Rainier and Grace Kelly. Unmarried, Albert, 49, remains one of Europe's most eligible bachelors, presiding over a family fortune estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.2 billion. Over the years he has been linked with supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, Brooke Shields and Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock.

Now his good-looking niece and nephews are commanding their share of the limelight. Charlotte Casiraghi, the 21-year-old daughter of Princess Caroline, reportedly compared to Brigitte Bardot by Chanel paterfamilias Karl Lagerfeld, was recently linked with a British real estate scion. Her older brother Andrea is reportedly dating Tatiana Santo Domingo, daughter of Colombian beer billionaire Julio Mario Santo Domingo, whose net worth Forbes pegged at $5.7 billion in March.

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