Listen—do you hear that creaking sound? Don't be too alarmed. It's only the coffin lid slowly closing on your ability to get high-definition video via the analog component-video connections on your Blu-ray player.
After decades of effort, Hollywood is finally "plugging the analog hole," as it's inelegantly been called, thanks to new restrictions imposed by the licensing administrator for the AACS, the copy-protection scheme used in Blu-ray players.
For example, as of January 1st of this year, manufacturers have not been permitted to make new Blu-ray players with component-video jacks capable of outputting high-definition (HD) video; instead, video sent via the component outputs is limited to SD (standard definition, either 480i or 576i). Existing models in the lineup with HD component-video connections can be sold through 2013, but starting in 2014, no new models will have any analog video outputs. Hence the term "analog sunset."
If you already own a Blu-ray player with active HD component-video outputs, you might think you're safe. Sadly, that's not the case, because of another piece of technology called the Image Constraint Token (ICT), which can be embedded in the video stream of a Blu-ray movie. When activated by a Hollywood studio, the ICT can down-rez (reduce the resolution of) the quality of the video sent via the component-video output.
The reasoning behind these changes is the belief that analog video is easier to copy than digital video. All Blu-ray players use the AACS (short for Advanced Access Content System) copy-protection scheme, which employs a technology called High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, or HDCP. Since component video is analog, it doesn't support HDCP. So theoretically, someone could make an analog high-def copy, then create a digital version that could be replicated and distributed via the Web. (Ironically, though, the AACS encryption system has already been cracked.)
To thwart this activity, Hollywood studios now have the right to insert an ICT "flag" into a Blu-ray movie; if it detects that a player is using an analog connection that doesn't support HDCP, it downconverts the video's 1080p (1920 by 1080) native resolution to 960 by 540 (540p): better than DVD quality but only about one-quarter of full HD quality. This ensure that high-def video is available only through the copy-protected HDMI outputs.
There are some ICT limitations. For one, the use of an ICT has to be clearly disclosed on a Blu-ray disc's packaging. For another, the ICT is applied on a title-by-title basis by each studio, so some movies may contain it while others don't. And the ICT can't be applied retroactively to titles already released. Finally, since the use of the ICT may be politically unpopular with Blu-ray customers, many studios might be reluctant to implement it.
Although these efforts to kill off high-def analog video—along with the FCC's recent decision to allow cable companies to disable a set-top box's analog-video outputs when showing first-run movies—may seem unpalatable, the reality is that most of us are probably already using HDMI connections in our newer gear whenever possible. Some features, such as video upconverting on DVD and Blu-ray players, work only via HDMI outputs.
But these recent initiatives could affect those of us with older TVs that don't have HDMI inputs—about 3 million sets, according to estimates I've seen—or who connect their source components to a receiver that has only component-video outputs. And based on past experiences (hello, music industry!), it's likely that all these efforts will have far more effect on consumers who are legally using and enjoying HD analog video than on actual pirates. For most of us, the analog sunset is one of the few we won't enjoy experiencing.
—James K. Willcox