December 22, 2005

TV Guide gripes

One aspect of the Dutch that I've been noticing more and more is the tendency to have everything carefully controlled. Many more aspects of life are under rules and regulations, and the freedom to do something of your choosing is not always there.

One example which I found quite surprising is that supermarkets here can't just open up a store and sell whatever they can fit in the shop. Each store is classified into a scale, and the scale of the supermarket determines how many products can be stocked. There is an upper limit here, and even the largest supermarkets have a relatively limited range, and the government claims that this protects smaller businesses.

But the biggest control-freak aspect to me is digital...

On the geek end of things, I've been trying hard for a while to find a good, reliable TV guide source for my MythTV setup. This software is my VCR, and for it to be effective at recording all the TV shows, it needs a good source of TV guide data.

Unfortunately, there just isn't one available for Holland. For UK channels that I receive over satellite, Radio Times have kindly made computer readable 14-day TV guides available online, so my schedules are all up to date with lots of detail. But the the Dutch channels, there's nothing except an often-broken HTML screen scraping program. At first I just figured no one had gotten around to making one available. But it turned out to me more sinister than that.

At work, there are some major projects involving television, and part of one makes use of TV guide data. It turns out that we can't just get a copy of the data and use it in our application. There was a large contract to be signed that had ridiculous details in it regarding such things as how much we could offer John Q Public at once, encryption and protection of the data, and strict usage limitations. Even us getting the guide was controlled, with certain levels of encryption needed for our connection to retrieve the data from the source. FTP was a total no-no.

These are just the difficulties in getting data for use by a partner company. Now getting TV guide data for an end viewer who already pays through the nose to watch their TV in a useable format is just out of the question. Oh no, you pay for reception of it, but you can't find out what's on!

It turns out the Dutch broadcasting media are anal-retentive control freaks on every level. I cannot get a copy of the TV guide even though I pay to watch the TV. Also, you will always need to pay to watch the TV, even the public broadcasting services. Free over-the-air TV consists of three public channels (until they turn off analog) and digital TV has one free (unencrypted) channel. Every other channel is scrambled and needs you to pay someone to be able to sit through ads. How they actually expect someone to find something to watch is beyond me.

Even trials of IPTV (TV over ADSL) have everything heavily encrypted, apparently because the studio demands it. But that's a load of bollocks really. Just about every other country that has digital TV has most of the regular (non-premium) channels available unscrambled, and even the BBC and ITV beam unscrambled digital blockbuster movies across Europe. IPTV in most other countries is unscrambled and can be watched with any convenient mpeg2 viewer. But not here. You need a custom box, with heavy encryption applied. In fact, it turns out that 70 to 80% of time spent on this particular project revolves around encryption. The amount of money being spent on this pointless "feature" will far outweigh anything gained by it, and it's just the idiots in charge creaming themselves over the "DRM" buzzword.

Unfortunately I don't see it changing here any time soon. With over 80% of households having cable TV, the culture of paying for access to information is here to stay, and enough demand or openness isn't gonna happen for a while.

This post brought to you in unencrypted, openly available, standards compliant, CC form.

Posted by Ben at December 22, 2005 12:04 AM | TrackBack
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