As usual, I'm not going to pretend to understand the technologies behind modern home entertainment. And so, before I begin, I'd like to prematurely thank any commenters who choose to weigh in on things such as "selectable output control," "the analog hole" or any other terms I might misuse or incorrectly explain. The only thing I comprehend about those electronic doohickeys in my living room is that they each somehow connect to my antiquated analog television and through the magic of, well, I don't know, I'm able to watch the occasional classic movie and mindless cake design program.
Those familiar with this column should know that I'm not here to necessarily explain how threats to movie theaters work. I'm just here to yell, "the sky is falling!" from within the lobby of the local cinema and hope that you Henny Pennys and Goosey Looseys are listening to my rants and ramblings and at least try to go to the movies more often (and hopefully buy at least one thing at the concession stand). This time, however, I feel even less knowledgeable about the latest threat, and I feel even more fearful that this is the beginning of the end. The cinemapocalypse, if you will.
So maybe they won't be tearing down your local multiplex anytime soon -- especially since they're into showing other things besides movies these days, like opera and sporting events -- but there's a storm approaching, like the kind Sarah Connor means at the end of The Terminator. Except here the rise of the machines doesn't refer to killer robots; it means boxes atop (or adjacent to) your TV. And I'm not even talking about that Netflix Roku that's selling like crazy. I'm talking about something even scarier for theatre owners nationwide.
Is it time for me to get to the point? Yes, it is. I guess I'm just hesitating because I can hardly bring myself to write that which I'm afraid of. But here goes: the MPAA is trying once again to close the window between theatrical release and home viewing. Yeah, yeah, we've heard it before, and it's always seemed inevitable that the window would continue to shrink. Well, that doesn't mean it's not bad! I know, we live in a time of great apathy: "It's inevitable that we'll have to give up certain rights and freedoms, so let it be." "It's inevitable that the cinemas will one day go out of business, because everything I need is in my home, so let it be." "It's inevitable that we'll all soon move into pods and be tapped into the faux-world of the Matrix, so let it be." I know how it is; some days I too would rather just eat the steak.
Whoah. OK fifth paragraph in and I haven't really explained anything. I'm a little excited. Meanwhile, you're probably yelling at your screen: "Chicken Little, what the heck are you ranting and raving about!?" OK, OK, here's the news part: Last month, the MPAA filed a petition (PDF file here) to waive the FCC's ruling against selectable output control. What this means is that your cable operator will be able to turn off the digital and analog outputs on your devices as they choose. Why would they want to do this? To prevent you from being able to record video-on-demand (VOD) movies on your TiVo or whatever, that's why.
You see the MPAA is hoping to allow the studios to distribute movies through VOD as early as one or two months after they open theatrically, before they hit DVD, Blu-Ray and other home entertainment formats. But for this to be as lucrative as possible for Hollywood, there has to be no possible way that the consumer can record, copy or otherwise "pirate" those movies. Apparently, and this is where I lose complete understanding via both tech and legal mumbo jumbo, four years ago the FCC ruled that no one is allowed to, "embed data ... so as to prevent its output through any analog or digital output." I don't know why the FCC made this ruling, but it allows you to use your TiVo or other DVR device and watch programs when you want. If you want more detailed information on what the MPAA's request means, as well as a fine argument for why it's bad for home viewers (again, I'm more concerned about movie theaters and moviegoers), read this post on the blog Public Knowledge.
And here's another subsequent post from the same blog that brings the topic back into my playing field. On Tuesday, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) requested an extension of the time permitted to review and possibly respond to the MPAA's petition. Obviously the movie theater business is going to be adversely affected by the narrowing of the distribution window. People are already content with waiting three or four months for the DVD. What if they only need be patient for four to eight weeks? Sayonara expensive movie theaters!
In its filed request (PDF file here), NATO stated that it couldn't yet be sure of the ramifications of this "new business model." The organization seems pessimistic, though, and admits to presuming the MPAA's petition could "have a devastating effect" on the exhibition industry. Furthermore the author, NATO Vice President, General Counsel & Director of Government Affairs, G. Kendrick Macdowell, goes right out and claims it could, "trigger the destruction of neighborhood movie theaters across the country." An extension of the response deadline would allow for NATO to discuss the petition with the MPAA in order to properly understand it.
Of course, NATO's optimism about having a "healthy, interindustry dialogue," seems a bit naïve considering the MPAA has clearly already stabbed the theatre owners in the back by submitting the petition in the first place (or second, third or even hundredth place, if you really pay attention to the MPAA-NATO relations over the years), and then it has since twisted that knife by reportedly refusing to consent to NATO's request for more time. J. Law at Public Knowledge argues that this may simply be "the pace of progress," which would place him in that "it's inevitable" box.
Meanwhile, of course a representative from the MPAA has said it's in the best interest of everyone. At something called tranFORMATions last Monday, EVP and chief strategic officer of the MPAA, Dean C. Garfield, claimed that consumers want "multiple choices across multiple platforms," meaning that we want "movies on the silver screen, [our] TV screen, [our] PDA." OK, so maybe there's no immediate downside, as he says, but if fewer people make that choice of the silver screen and more movie theaters are forced to close, then there's one less choice for moviegoers like me.
Hopefully, though, between NATO's request and the Consumer Electronics Association being against the MPAA's proposal (that group feels it gives the MPAA too much control, plus it probably doesn't like how these new VOD films won't work on certain HDTV's and other such problems laid out by that first Public Knowledge post), the FCC won't end up granting the waiver. And would any of you really that disappointed? Those of you who care probably download movies in advance anyways. So let Chicken Little keep his sky intact, and don't complain if you miss out on this one choice.