Limited Choice

At last month's Consumer Electronics Show, Disney chief Bob Iger said, "From my perspective, the best way to combat piracy is to bring content to market on a well-timed, well-priced basis." Hol

Feb 7, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Oliver Meinerding

At last month's Consumer Electronics Show, Disney chief Bob Iger said, "From my perspective, the best way to combat piracy is to bring content to market on a well-timed, well-priced basis." Holy crap! The media giant has awakened to 21st-century reality! Surely end-times are near!

While the "Music Choice" channels on Time Warner Cable (available locally with digital cable) aren't new, they are a familiar way for people to hear new music without commercials. Maybe it's time for our local cable TV lords to take a cue from Iger and Disney and realize that crippled products do more harm than good. Cable companies can deliver a crippled, backwards product because broadcast alternatives, including XM and Sirius, aren't much better. But with iTunes, Odeo and Podnova providing competition, change is inevitable. Or should be.

Give Time Warner props for content.

While their channels cover overly-broad genres, they offer better fare than local radio broadcasters (with exceptions like WNKU). Rarely do I tune in and not hear something cool, new or both. Sure, the Reggae channel is light on Dub and the Dance channels focus more on Hi-Energy than Drum & Bass, but these are personal preferences. They cover most bases more deeply than an FM station would dare. Lacking the endless channels offered by satellite radio, they manage to mix things up well enough to provide background music for almost any occasion.

Cable-music is delivered on TV, so it comes with pictures. Images have been used to connect with songs and music for generations. Retail endcaps drive sales with art. Album covers, displays and signage, and more recently enhanced CDs and DVDs, are visual tools that make music more interesting and appealing. Music Choice drops this ball completely. Genres featuring black people, like Reggae, regularly feature images of rappers, as if all black music was Hip Hop. Album covers, the simple and natural solution, are sometimes crammed in a corner, but often ignored. That's pretty lame. Any home computer can retrieve and display album art while playing, with free apps like iTunes and WinAmp. In short, every PC on the planet does a better job visualizing playlists than any of Time Warner's channels.

Consider how we listen today. Tivo, iTunes and iPods have changed everything. It's frustrating when you can't "skip back" when you miss a comment on NPR, or the title of a song. But we accept this as the nature of live broadcasting. Even so, most outlets provide Web-based playlists and podcasts that re-deliver information when it really matters. Music Choice channels lack this. There's no way to know what played when. And while the set-top box is capable of capturing the streams just like any other show, rights management prevents it by design!

Time-shifting, accepted as a necessity for TV, is forbidden for music. The reason is as simple as it is dumb: music labels see all user-controlled recording as piracy. The only reason it exists at all is that the Supreme Court asserted the right of fair use in the 1980s. Since then, media corporations have worked tirelessly to cripple products and weaken fair use rights in Congress and the courts. Most consumers think the battle ended with Napster. We couldn't be more wrong.

In an effort to punish satellite broadcasters, podcasters and virtually all non-broadcast digital streams of music, Sens. Diane Feinstein (Democrat from California, naturally!) and Lindsay Graham (Republican, South Carolina) have introduced a bill known as the "PERFORM Act" which includes a provision to require Digital Rights Management (DRM) locks be applied to all digital streams. The idea: make iTunes radio stations, NPR streams and satellite radio as lousy and useless as Time Warner Music Choice. Going beyond the Digital Millennia Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1996, this bill seeks to turn back the clock on recording technology as well.

While it won't impact TiVo or video DVRs, it outlaws similar time-shifting technologies for audio-only streams. While this won't impact podcasts (which are downloaded intact), it's a killer for outlets like online radio station WOXY that rely on statutory licensing and choose not to wrap their stream in Real or Microsoft DRM for the listener's convenience. It cripples and outlaws streaming MP3 formats, to make bad/old media more competitive against the new/better formats that are replacing them.

No doubt Congress and the corporations believe this scheme will benefit media companies, especially content producers and old-model slackers. No doubt they're wrong. Every new delivery media or format introduced in the history of music (recorded or otherwise) has expanded the market and increased revenues. As labels were dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age by consumers, they found new revenue streams that have already begun to outperform old ones. Transitions create opportunity. Some powerful companies (think Apple or Sony) recognize this and use it to pull ahead. Others prefer fighting their customers and content creators (artists) and predictably fail.

So the revolution is in a bit of trouble. Listen to Music Choice and ask yourself if the product is as good as TiVo, podcasts, streaming radio (like WOXY) or XM and Sirius. If you use and value a DVR or an iPod (or other MP3 player), you might want to visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation to learn how Congress is selling you out along with your fair use rights. Check into at

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.