Selectable Output Control in Make

MAKE's put my latest column, "Selectable Output Control," online -- it describes a proposal to the FCC to allow broadcasters to shut down parts of your home theater while you're watching their channels, and the consequences for Makers.
Chances are, you haven't heard of Selectable Output Control (SOC), a proposed digital TV technology that would allow broadcasters or copyright holders to tag their video with a list of receiver-outputs that were allowed to carry it. That's because it's an insane idea.

Picture this: you power up your home theater, an near-incomprehensible tangle of game-consoles, AV switchers, cable boxes, PVRs, DVD players, 5.1 speakers, amps -- maybe a home theater PC or a projector, too. After some fiddling and locating the correct remote, you start to surf up the dial. All good. Then you hit MTV and the gorgeous, perfectly balanced sound stops. Why has it stopped? Because your cable-receiver has received a SOC flag from MTV disallowing high-end audio unless it has some obscure DRM that isn't compatible with any of your gear (especially not your beautiful hand-built tube-amp). MTV doesn't want you digitizing the songs that accompany the (increasingly rare) music videos they play, so if you want sound while watching MTV, you've got to turn on the tiny internal speakers that came with your TV.

You flip up the dial (get up again and turn off the internal speakers), and flip to HBO and your screen goes dark. That's because HBO is showing a movie that has been flagged as "no analog" -- which means that your beautiful, 42" plasma display won't work because you connected it via the composite analog video cables coming off the back of your AV switcher, rather than via the DRM-locked HDCP output. To watch the movie, you'll need to move the entire shelving unit (remember to take down the family photos first, doofus, otherwise you risk shattering the glass if they tip over), disconnect the analog cables, find the HDCP cable that came with the TV (or was it the cable box?) in the garage, and rewire your set. When the kids want to play a couple hours of Paper Mario on the Wii, you're going to need to move it again and reconnect things. (Coming soon to a Make issue: HOWTO put your home theater on wheels for easy rewiring).

Selectable Output Control


  1. This is all your fault. As means of communication improve, you’re asking for this kind of nonsense.
    Better communication = wider awareness of the really talented creator’s content = less tolerance for the wares of lesser talents = lesser talents have to occupy themselves somehow (how else will they afford the good content) = they sit around coming up with this sort of IP contol nonsense.

    You proper talented content creators need to slow the heck down with your creation. = which will stimulate demand for crud, which will mean asshats can create content (which they’d rather), reducing the time available to said asshats to come up with insane IP contol.

    It’s your fault, Doctorow.

  2. Question: how, exactly are you running a digital signal through a tube amp? Also what self-respecting audio/videophile would use composite to hook their cable box up to their “gorgeous” 42″ plasma display with composite? And, for that matter, what is an “HDCP cable”? The encryption is HDCP, but the cable is HDMI. I agree with the article’s sentiment, but it seems like either A) the author knows little about home theater equipment or B) they’re doing an awful lot of rhetorical gymnastics to make their concerns fit their example.

  3. Yesterday I was watching David Suzuki talking about how, before the invention of the written language, people relied more on conveying the spirit of the message rather than it’s precise, factual, fidelity; which in turn was obtained by the masses as the written word eventually fascilitated it’s dissemination. The irony of course, it’s that as we reach new highs of distribution it now comes down for us to relay on less quality representations to fulfill our information needs. Or not. The spirit lives on.

    All hail our new SOC overlords!

  4. Well, I’m sorry but I agree with DoomsTalk. The engineering interpretation isn’t kosher, and yet, Cory is correctly impliying a knotted path preventing the free enjoyment of our content, bought or not.

  5. The author doesn’t know shit about home theatres, ’tis true. But this could be a useful point adding to the argument- neither does the average consumer. they have someone install it for them. so if they suddenly lose a portion of the signal, they panic.

    Oh, and how to run digital signal through a tube amp? well all speakers (except, i suppose plasma speakers, which aren’t commercially available for safety reasons) are by definition analog, so sooner or later you need to do A/D conversion, and that’s as good a time as any to run it through your hand built tube amp. Or amps, rather, as you’d need at least six for a surround system.

  6. doomstalk, ya beat me to it (mostly because I had to go somewhere phones don’t go), but the answer to your inquiry is B. Not just because of the tech, but also because neither MTV or HBO would use SOC. MTV is basic cable crap, and HBO, while premium, would lose way too many subs. SOC is being proposed by the MPAA for PPV/ON-demand content, and only for pre-disc-release movies. Chances are, if you’re not using HDMI, your box won’t even show you the SOC-locked offerings.

    Cory’s reasonings often remind me of the TSA. I can’t believe MAKE published that.

  7. It’s stuff like this- along with the HDCP thing that Cory mentioned a few days ago ( that keeps me clinging to my old simple analog gear. The picture might not be as pretty, but at least it works.

    I mean, why spend $$$$ on fancy HD capable computers, TVs, players, audio systems, game consoles, etc- that might arbitrarily decide not to work due to some broadcast flag?

    I remember when encryption was expensive and protective, not aggressive like it is today- when it was used sparingly, and for its intended purpose- keeping snoops out.

    If people just said “Enough!” and quit buying the media (and also the crippled hardware), and started standing up to this sort of nonsense, we might regain our sanity.

  8. When they think they can screw you through high-tech, low-tech is where you can screw them back. If digital makes this possible, go analog. Keep your old TV-set and re-erect that antenna on your roof.

    Start guerilla-tv-broadcasting in local areas with mobile units. Wayne’s World! Partytime! Hook up your DVD-burner and presto, it might not be HD-TV, but it’s there, it’s free, it’s undetectable, and garantueed to cause drama. And we all love drama.

  9. ‘m srry, bt ppl n Zmbbw r dyng f chlr bcs thy dn’t hv prpr nfrstrctr fr swg nd y gys r wrrd bt gttng dgtl snd fr MTV (whch rlly dsn’t vn ply vds nymr). rlz tht prrts dffr fr sm ppl, bt f SC s nt vn rlty (yt!) thn, cn’t w fcs n sm rl stff?!

  10. If I can’t see people in Zimbabwe dying of cholera in HD with 7.1 surround sound, my rights are being infringed.


  11. sunfell – the argument about not buying crippled hardware suffers from what I call the ‘Gutmann Delusion’: That DRM-capable hardware will restrict unprotected media. My TV, XBOX, iPhone and Vista PC all have loads of DRM ‘features’ but they haven’t once affected my ability to record unrestricted HDTV from digital cable, rip, burn, and transcode CD/DVDs, or play all kinds of stuff from bittorrent.

    Now, I can’t record premium cable, pirate xbox games, or rip streams from netflix. Those have DRM, and I understand that. No alternative hardware exists that will ignore that DRM, so If it annoys me, the solution is to not buy DRM media, not junk my hardware.

    Some locked down hardware is deficient, but a lack of features does not equal DRM. The only criteria for buying hardware should be: will it work for what I care about?

  12. Guinness74: What are you doing reading articles about SOC on the intarwebs when people in Zimbabwe are dying of cholera!

    Quick! Think about it all the time to the exclusion of all else!

    ‘cos that’ll help.

  13. #8. At that point, you’ve already run it through the DAC, and should be able to amplify it without any concern for DRM.

  14. My first pre-caffienated thought upon reading this article: Guess they don’t want me watching their “content”… f#@k ’em, and the digital horse they rode in on. I can find something else to do.

    And you kids stay the hell off of my lawn.

  15. I think the time is ripe for a boycott of DVDs (Blueray in particular) and wide screen TVs that employ digital rights management finkware. Hollywood is worried about the drop in year to year DVD sales so let’s give them something to really worry about.
    Going back to the mid 1980s they were already getting half their income on a film from tape sales. With DVDs it’s higher. Now they are putting out the DVD of a film pretty close to the theatrical release. If we could drop sales a few more percent, their tune would change quickly.
    Side note: In the present atmosphere I’d be willing to bet the the analog TV shutdown in February will be delayed.

  16. Or amps, rather, as you’d need at least six for a surround system.

    Why on earth would you need 6 amps to run a surround sound system? You’d just need tube outputs after signal is already split.

    This list goes to eleven — the 11 hottest tube amps you can buy – Check out Number 7. Steampunk fans might also enjoy number 5.

    Also whilst it says HDCP cable and output in the exert above, it actually says HDMI in the article linked to.

    One other thing

    Also what self-respecting audio/videophile would use composite to hook their cable box up to their “gorgeous” 42″ plasma display with composite?

    What the hell does any of this article have to do with audio/videophiles? 95% of the people I know that own high-end audio and video equipment wouldn’t have a clue how to set up all this stuff, nor be able to tell the difference between a blu-ray disc and a DVD. They simply have money to spend on these sorts of items and have the right to expect it to work!

  17. Believe it or not, but the **AA would like chip makers to close the “analog hole”. Basically, they’d like every manufacturer of ADCs and DACs (companies like Analog Devices, National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments) to have every chip be able to recognize signals that are forbidden to convert, typically via a watermark.

    But, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, “reality has a well-known anti-DRM bias”.

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