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9/28/2006
12:51 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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To Boldly Go Where No Mascara-Wearing Captain Has Gone Before

We'll forgive you if you want to start Cory Doctorow's latest column with the last paragraph on the second page. That's where Cory starts to talk about how Hollywood is unprepared to deliver video that takes advantage of the new high-definition TV screens. Most existing video looks terrible in high-def, and directors don't know how to use the new medium correctly. I laughed out loud at Cory's

We'll forgive you if you want to start Cory Doctorow's latest column with the last paragraph on the second page. That's where Cory starts to talk about how Hollywood is unprepared to deliver video that takes advantage of the new high-definition TV screens. Most existing video looks terrible in high-def, and directors don't know how to use the new medium correctly.

I laughed out loud at Cory's description of Friends on HD."It's all gaping pores, running pancake makeup, caked-on hairspray, and freakishly thin bodies with giant, tottering heads." Indeed, TVPredictions.com's Phillip Swann has been compiling an annual list of stars who look the best and worst in HD. This year's entries for stars who look great on regular TV but awful in high-def include Teri Hatcher and Britney Spears. Last year's list was funnier (and a little offensive, too--Swann seems to object to people over 40 who actually look like they're over 40).

Cory argues that high-definition TV isn't just regular TV but better; it requires an entirely new visual language, the way existing TV technology was different from movies and talking movies were different from silents.

You don't have to own a high-definition TV to experience this phenomenon. We have a 36" CRT TV, which we bought new five or six years ago. Recently, we've been enjoying the new digitally remastered Star Trek. Alas, the 40-year-old show just doesn't look that great on 21st century technology, even with digital remastering--indeed, digital remastering might even make things worse by making the visual problems easier to spot. We've seen starship officers crushed to death by falling blocks of balsa wood weighing several ounces. We've seen furniture that looked like it was purchased at a garage sale.

But worst of all are the face close-ups, wherein we learn that Captain James Kirk wore more makeup and mascara than Captain Jack Sparrow.

The main thrust of Cory's article looks at how high-definition TV was born in the 1980s as a government handout and is now a lumbering dinosaur, weighed down with so much digital rights management fat that consumers aren't going to be interested in buying. The Broadcast Flag and other DRM mandates where you can watch your lawfully purchased video prevent you from opening up the box and repairing or modifying the equipment. "Creepier still," says Cory, "is 'authorized domain'--the ability to flag content so that it can only be played within a 'household,' where the studios get to define what is and isn't a valid living arrangement."

The feature I personally find most objectionable is "'renewability,' the ability to remotely disable some or all of the device's features without your permission." Imagine if that kind of thing was available to the auto industry. If I buy a car with air-conditioning, I expect that the AC will continue to work until it breaks, and that Ford won't be able to disable the AC by remote control one day if it feels like it.

Cory is an anti-DRM zealot, but what's interesting about his arguments--in this essay and elsewhere--is that he doesn't just talk about morality and philosophy. He describes how DRM isn't just wrong, but it's also bad for business. He argues that DRM is bad for the iPod, Internet music, and Internet video businesses in a July column.

What do you think? Is DRM needed to protect video and music? Does current high-def technology have too much DRM? Do you have an HD TV? Are you happy with it?

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