NBC Stations Fret Flag Loophole

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Some local broadcasters are worried that pending federal rules won't protect their news and public-affairs programming from wanton Internet redistribution.

Federal Communications Commission Michael Powell has said that the agency would vote this month — on rules collectively known as the broadcast flag — to protect digital broadcast programming from Internet redistribution in violation of copyright law.

NBC affiliates evidently are concerned that the agency is considering an exemption for news and public-affairs programming.

An FCC source said last week the exemption that NBC stations fear was in play, though staff in the Media Bureau was continuing to work on the draft order.

"For local NBC affiliates, a broadcast flag system that does not protect news and public-affairs programming would substantially gut the utility of this important technology," said Roger Ogden, chairman of NBC's Television Affiliates Association, in an Oct. 6 letter to Powell.

Ogden explained that the "vast majority" of programming produced by local stations is news and public affairs and that failure to protect it from piracy would harm the stations financially.

"The NBC affiliates may find that piracy makes it impossible to recover the costs of digital-television production unless effective copy-protection systems are implemented," Ogden said.

The exemption was the idea of the Consumer Electronics Association. Such an exemption presumably would allow consumers to share video files containing news and public-affairs programming on the Internet without incurring copyright liability. Illegal file sharing has hammered music-industry sales, causing that business to sue hundreds of consumers and seek damages.

CEA told the FCC that copy protection for news and public-affairs programming should not be as extensive.

"We believe there is a substantial public interest in news and public interest programming. Consumers should be free to make flexible use of that material," said CEA vice president of technology and policy Michael Petricone.

Some organizations oppose the broadcast flag, maintaining that TV stations obtained FCC licenses for free in exchange for serving the public interest.

Mike Godwin, president of Public Knowledge, a group here concerned with the interplay between technology and intellectual property, said the broadcast flag would allow broadcasters to "lock down content" — even if consumers intend to use it in manner consistent with copyright law.

"I think we should respect copyright. I don't support the broadcast flag at all," Godwin said.

Powell considers adoption of broadcast-flag technology a key ingredient in the transition to digital TV by terrestrial broadcasters, mainly because consumers won't purchase digital receivers unless they can view high-value content. That high-end programming won't become available unless it is protected from unauthorized redistribution.

The Big Four networks that supply the affiliates with primetime programming assert that without copy protection for over-the-air broadcasting, high-end programming such as HDTV movies and sports would migrate to secure cable and direct-broadcast satellite platforms.

Viacom, for example, last December threatened to stop transmitting any HDTV programming for the 2003-2004 TV season if the FCC had not adopted the broadcast flag. Viacom later reconsidered.

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