FCC backs studios' VOD plan

Decision allows leeway for early release windows

The FCC figures it would be a good thing to shrink the amount of time between a movie's theatrical release and its appearance on VOD, so it has backed technology that would encourage such behavior from the major film studios.

The FCC's decision Friday allows media companies to encode their video programming with a signal that will disable certain outputs on set-top boxes, thus preventing consumers from recording the content they are watching.

In mostly siding with distributors over exhibitors on the issue, the FCC said its purpose was to give studios the incentive to offer their most popular movies to home viewers more quickly. That would be a positive development because it benefits those who, because of a physical disability, cannot enjoy movies in theaters, according to the FCC.

"We believe that providing consumers with the option to view films in their homes shortly after those films are released in theaters will serve the public interest," the FCC said.

The FCC made it clear its intent wasn't to block the copying of all content but to prevent the recording, sharing and piracy of "high-value" movies that legitimately make their way to TV screens before their release on DVD or Blu-ray.

The MPAA has been lobbying for such a ruling, though the FCC didn't give the organization everything it wanted, just a limited waiver allowing them to activate what's known as "selectable output control" in set-top boxes.

"We are convinced that MPAA member companies will not make any substantial changes to the release window in the absence of adequate protection of high-value content, and that consumers will thus not enjoy the benefits of this service absent a waiver," the FCC said.

Exhibitors agree that the ruling will shrink windows, but unlike the FCC, they view that as something to be avoided.

The National Association of Theatre Owners lobbied against the plan on the grounds that it is to the detriment of moviegoing -- or what it called: the "least expensive, best-value, out-of-home entertainment experience available to Americans."

It also argued that it would harm independent filmmakers and make it more difficult for "sleeper" films to gain traction at theaters.

Besides NATO, the FCC's decision raised objections from some public advocacy groups. Giving media conglomerates the ability to remotely disable selected audio and video outputs on consumers' set-top boxes is an invasion of privacy, the say.

"The movie industry is now free to turn off the feature of your TV that lets you connect things like cable boxes to it," John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge wrote Friday. "What other high-value content deserves a waiver next -- live sports? The season finale of 'Mad Men'?"