North Korea Rolls Out Next-Generation Television to Captive Audience

Not to be outdone by their neighbors to the south, North Korea has taken its first steps in rolling out the next-generation television standard KTSC 3.0. Based on ATSC 3.0, KTSC 3.0 modifies the standard, for example by replacing COFDM with TEADM, so that compliant televisions are unable to receive the ATSC 3.0 broadcasts from South Korea.

A key feature of the new standard is its incorporation of a DRM scheme permitting broadcasters more control over how viewers consume their programming. Viewers are not allowed to pause or fast-forward through commercials or state-sponsored segments, for example, although they are allowed to rewind and watch them again.

A more controversial aspect of the DRM scheme requires viewers to wear a bracelet monitoring their proximity to the television. Televisions will only display programming while a viewer is within five meters of the set. Straying from those bounds during a commercial (or certain “Must Watch” programming) results in the administration of progressively stronger electrical shocks.

It has been reported that viewers have found ways to circumvent the DRM by placing the bracelet on the family pet. Apparently a warm tteokbokki suffices as well. The Korean Central Broadcasting Committee is aware of the deficiencies in the current scheme and is apparently working on an improved DRM device which utilizes retinal scans and is able to determine if a viewer is actually looking at the television.

Despite country-wide rollout of the standard via a single-frequency network carrying all four North Korean channels, uptake by viewers remains low, with more than one commenting that “It looks the same [as the current DVB-T2 broadcast]. So why buy a new set?” Consumers were previously teased with the promise of 4K broadcasts enabled by the new standard, however actual 4K programming has yet to materialize.

This article has been crafted for this very special day. To the best of our knowledge, KTSC 3.0 remains in the pre-concept stage, and any recent spike in tteokbokki sales is purely coincidental. While viewers in North Korea may continue to freely consume their programming – and tteokbokki – we wish to sound a cautionary note on the deployment of protected ATSC 3.0 channels in the United States – the same services which are available DRM-free via ATSC 1.0.

Our thoughts are succinctly, if a bit more emphatically, expressed by Ned S of SiliconDust:

“…encryption threatens most of our third party partners, third party apps, the greater open source community, offline users, and more. ATSC 3.0 encryption/DRM on the normal broadcast channels (that are still transmitting in unencrypted ATSC 1.0, making it even more pointless) is absurd, anti-consumer, and honestly confusing (it really doesn’t even help the broadcasters protect their content in the big picture…)”

We do see a place for DRM where broadcasters go beyond “normal broadcast channels,” for example in delivering a 4K enhancement layer to a DRM-free FHD base layer, or in delivering paid subscription services as Evoca had done. It must also be acknowledged that “free” TV is not truly free – salaries, utility bills, and, yes, content rights, need to be paid for. However this is not a concern unique to ATSC 3.0. For the benefit of viewers, receiver makers, and all innovating in the TV viewing space we implore over-the-air broadcasters to resist the temptation to control viewer behavior via broadcast flags and to seek alternatives to encrypting the types of services presently available free and in the clear via ATSC 1.0.