MPAA Wants to Control TVs in Your Home; Consumer Groups Fight Back

FCC expected to rule soon on “selectable output control,” which would limit home copying of movies or TV shows.

The Motion Picture Association of America wants to make movies available to home consumers via protected video-on-demand, but consumer groups are accusing the organization of threatening consumer freedom.

The MPAA wants permission from the Federal Communications Commission to engage in “selectable output control,” or SOC. The SOC would allow cable companies, at the direction of the MPAA or the studios it represents, to turn off output plugs on home entertainment devices during special video-on-demand movie showings.

That, in turn, would limit consumers’ ability to copy movies during viewing.

The MPAA proposes using SOC to allow an earlier on-demand release of hot HD titles, closer to the theatrical release date and perhaps before they are available on DVD.

Current FCC rules bar cable companies from taking such action and allow consumers to use cable boxes in their homes as they want. Some consumers use Slingbox or other devices to broadcast video signals to other sets or to cell phones.

The FCC's Media Bureau is nearing a decision on the MPAA's request.

On Wednesday, 13 consumer groups — among them Public Knowledge, the Consumer Federation of America and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — sent a letter to the FCC commissioners and launched a YouTube video, warning against granting a “special favor” to Hollywood studios.

The consumer groups suggested the change in SOC rules would give studios unprecedented control of how consumers use their home TVs.

“We think this is greatly unfair to consumers. This is the movie industry controlling set-top boxes, and there is no reason for it,” said Art Brodsky, a Public Knowledge spokesman.

The groups’ letter argues that the FCC is acting with no evidence any steps are needed and warn that millions of TVs and boxes without selectable outputs would become outmoded.

“Our groups have filled the record with reasons why such a waiver would be detrimental to consumers,” said the letter.

“Over the past year, the MPAA has failed to provide a reason as to why the limited interests of its six member movie studios should be allowed to outweigh the interests of those consumers that will be forced to replace over 20 million television sets and countless other devices in order to view content that their current equipment is capable of displaying. Granting the waiver effectively would allow MPAA member companies to control the types of connections and features offered to all U.S. consumers.”

The MPAA, in its own letter to the FCC Wednesday, rejected the charge and suggested its request is “an incredibly pro-consumer development.”

The waiver “would for the first time allow millions of consumers to view high-value, high-definition theatrical films during an early release window that is not available today,” the MPAA said in its letter.

The MPAA called the movies to be offered “high-value content” and said that “especially with respect to movies released for home viewing close to or even during their initial theatrical run, [it] necessarily requires the highest level of protection possible."

In a statement, MPAA chairman-CEO Dan Glickman suggested the availability of video-on-demand for new movies would be an aid to those who either have no ready access to local cinemas or have disabilities that make getting to a theater difficult.

“I, like most moviegoers, believe the best way to enjoy a movie is to go to the theater with friends and share a communal laugh or adventure together. But I also believe there is ample room for additional choices that satisfy consumer demand to enjoy movies in diverse new ways,” he said. “Many of us love movies, but we just can’t make it to the theater as often as we’d like. That is especially true for parents of young children, rural Americans who live far from the multiplex and people with disabilities that keep them close to home.”