Coming to your TV: New movies still in the theater

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FCC allows industry control of home TV during recent releasesNew, first-run films may soon be coming to TV near you even as they are still running in theaters. Now the question is what the impact will be on theaters.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday approved the request by major Hollywood studios for a technological step that would allow them to bring high-definition films to the small screen far, far more quickly.The studios have wanted to work with cable, phone and satellite providers to offer first-run films from video-on-demand services, probably at a premium price, but have been worried it might lead to more illegal copying and piracy problems.

To prevent that, they asked the FCC to let video-on-demand services temporarily turn off any secondary outputs on a TV, cable box or DVR whenever a first-run movie is being watched. Normally, under FCC rules only a homeowner can turn off those output jacks.Theater owners and independent film producers opposed the request, warning that instant availability of movies could threaten theater revenues and take away the very essence of what makes films magical -- the shared experience of watching a film in a theater with others. It could also destroy the resulting word of mouth that turns good films into hits.

The National Association of Theatre Owners suggested the quick availability on TV of recent releases could backfire, eventually reducing the choice of films for everyone. The Independent Film and Television Alliance also issued warnings. It was afraid access to independent films could be reduced.

Meanwhile Public Knowledge, a consumer group, questioned giving movie companies control of home TVs and whether studios fears of copying were justified. It also argued that implementing the technology to turn off secondary outputs could leave viewers with older TVs and cable boxes unable to get the movies. Consumer electronics makers also raised some concerns about the technology the studios wanted.

The FCC generally sided with movie companies in its ruling.

"We believe that providing consumers with the option to view films in their homes shortly after those films are released in theaters will serve the public interest," the agency's Media Bureau wrote in its ruling, indicating it was convinced that only with safeguards would movies ever be offered on the small screen so early.

The FCC, in approving the request, added several of these safeguards: Studios can only block the outputs for a film for 90 days and they have to discontinue the block when DVDs are released. The FCC also will allow all studios use the technology, not just the six who originally asked for it.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the big six studios that made the request, praised the FCC.
"This action is an important victory for consumers who will now have far greater access to see recent high definition movies in their homes, said Bob Pisano, president-interim CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America in a press release.

"The first, and best way to view movies will always be in movie theaters – and nothing can replace the pleasure this brings to millions and millions of people all across our country and the globe," Pisano said. "But for those people unable to make it to the theater and interested in viewing a recently released movie, thanks to the FCC, they will now have a new option."

The National Association of Theater Owners in a statement said the determination of what happens "will now be decided in the marketplace."

Public Knowledge meanwhile warned that some consumers are going to be absolutely enraged when their TV outputs are turned off.

"The order will allow the big firms for the first time to take control of a consumer's TV set or set-top box, blocking viewing of a TV program or motion picture," said Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder. She predicted a major outrage the first time the block is implemented.

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