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Super-Porn Gaffe: No Accidental Fumble

2/03/2009 7:55 AM

UPDATED 2/4: Officially, Comcast says it’s still investigating whether the 30-second hard-core pornography snippet that popped up at a critical moment in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII for some Tucson, Ariz., subscribers was a “malicious act.”

But there would appear to be no question that the incident was an intentional prank.

[UPDATE: I spoke with a cable engineer who said it was possible that someone had hacked into the Comcast HFC plant outside the headend and spliced in the porn. That, however, would require fairly sophisticated equipment and knowledge of the system’s configuration, he added, so it is far more likely that the offending video was inserted at the headend.]

No matter how the snafu happened, it’s an incredibly dumb joke that will be costly not only to Comcast in Tucson, but to the MSO’s reputation nationwide as the Super Porn Interlude became an instant source of scorn and hilarity across the Internet, rivaling the “wardrobe malfunction” of five years ago.

The feeds provided by local broadcasters, like NBC affiliate KVOA-TV in Tucson, are basically on autopilot when they’re handed off to the cable company.

The only conceivable modification a cable provider might make to a broadcaster’s signal would be to “downconvert” an HD signal into lower-definition format for 4:3 standard-def distribution. This is happening or has happened in many markets where the broadcaster is going all-HD in preparation for the still-uncertain digital TV transition. (For cable networks, by contrast, a local cable system might insert its own ads into the video stream at predefined points.)

So the chance of an accidental porn-splicing event on a broadcast feed doesn’t add up. Also note that the porn that showed up on KVOA was from Playboy’s Shorteez, a pay-per-view channel that normally requires a digital set-top user to initiate and confirm the order (since it’s added to a customer’s bill).

Could a Comcast tech at the Tucson headend accidently have keyed in a command that substituted a PPV porn feed into the broadcast channel? On a Sunday night… during the Super Bowl… at a critical point in the home team’s historic bid to win its first-ever championship? Mistakes are possible but this looks like a sophomoric act of sabotage.

Note to cable system GMs: might be a good idea to lock down your headends for the Big Game in the future.

September