The so-called "broadcast flag" is a digital code embedded into a broadcast stream so that digital TVs can't be used to copy and pirate content. It's considered crucial for the broadcast networks, which see their free over-the-air model potentially compromised and destroyed along the same lines that Napster and other sites threatened the music industry. It also clears a key roadblock in the FCC's sometimes clunky road toward digital television.
The FCC's ruling, which takes effect in July 2005, only affects digital TVs that can receive signals over the air. Other electronic equipment without digital tuners -- including digital video recorders, DVD players and personal computers -- don't come under the rules. Existing televisions aren't impacted.
Viacom, which owns broadcast networks CBS and UPN, hailed the decision in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
"By mandating broadcast flag technology in devices equipped to receive digital broadcast television, the Commission has resolved to protect broadcast content and ensure that Americans will continue to receive free, high quality programming in the digital age," Viacom said in the statement. Broadcasters can decide whether they want the digital code inserted in the program.
Digital television has had a rocky road toward implementation. In April 1997, the FCC ordered that all television stations nationwide convert from analog to digital. The FCC and Congress has fixed a January 2007 deadline for the transition to digital, which costs a lot but gives over-the-air broadcasters a chance to compete on a somewhat similar playing field to rivals in cable and satellite. Digital TV gives broadcasters the ability to transmit several programs simultaneously, offer high-definition video and even get into interactive TV.
While stations has moved toward digital TV, broadcast networks have been concerned about whether their content could be protected and their economic model preserved. The FCC, for its part, is concerned that the migration of programming from free to pay-TV services.
"Today's decision strikes a careful balance between content protection and technology innovation in order to promote concert interests," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in a prepared statement. "Because broadcast TV is transmitted 'in the clear,' it is more susceptible than encrypted cable or satellite programming to being captured and retransmitted via the Internet." The FCC is worried that a resulting cascade would send broadcast TV programming to secure delivery like cable and satellite, relegating the 40 million Americans who rely on free over-the-air TV to watch reruns of "I Dream of Jeannie" and direct response TV, for instance.
The ruling elicited a partial dissent from FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who said that news or public-domain content can also be locked and limited.
"The widest possible dissemination of news and information serves the best interests of the community," Copps said. "We should therefore be promoting the widest possible dissemination of news and information consistent, of course, with the copyright laws. And neither the FCC nor the broadcast flag should interfere with the free flow of non-copyrightable material."