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Cable DRM Strugglefest: My Headaches Setting Up a USB TV Tuner

I am a paying cable subscriber, and it makes me want to pirate.

Yesterday I recounted my headaches dealing with Comcast incompetence and how I finally managed to accomplish what I’d set out to do, which was to acquire a CableCARD for my WinTV DCR 2650. But my troubles were far from over. Setting up a CableCARD TV tuner is a process riddled with pitfalls, each one an enormous time-sink that could scuttle your plans for PC-centric home entertainment. It’s unfortunate, really, but DRM once again hurts only the legitimate consumer. And I believe it’s why the cable industry as we know it will burn.

The main problem with Microsoft’s utopic vision of media center PC’s is that content providers are hell-bent on controlling every last aspect of delivery. These are the same anachronistic a******s who would love to go back in time and prevent the invention of the VHS if they could. So the next best thing, they decided, was to implement every software check possible to prevent people from recording or otherwise circumventing their control over programming. So Microsoft developed PlayReady DRM.

You’ve seen similar schemes in action in some media devices. Measures are taken to prevent you from passing the signal from a Blu-ray player through some sort of intermediate recording device to a TV. Only approved devices are permitted on either end of the HDMI cable. I believe the system is called HDCP… But at least in this system, if something goes wrong there’s a chance you can physically tinker with the system to fix it by swapping something out. On a computer, the DRM schemes are more obnoxious than simply checking a compatibility list for your Blu-ray player and TV.

If Windows thinks the path between your cable box and your monitor is compromised, you won’t be able to watch TV. Period. And while 90% of the time this isn’t a problem, when this “feature” does fail, it’s a ginormous headache to fix. In my particular case, the DRM “license” associated with my hardware was wrong.

PlayReady and all the other digital content protection garbage that is used by Windows Media Center works on a pretty simple principle: You computer hardware is scanned and, if approved, a license file is generated that allows you to watch protected content. The license is tied to your physical hardware, so if you swap out a motherboard or a graphics card for an “evil” video capture card, then your license may be revoked and you need to re-scan your hardware. It’s very similar to the Windows activation scheme, except even more sensitive to changes like driver updates.


Because I went through a motherboard/CPU upgrade a few months ago, Windows 8’s license file for my computer wasn’t up to date, and I couldn’t watch anything. Every time I tried to setup my TV signal in Media Center, I would get something along the lines of “PlayReady Update unable to complete.” Microsoft doesn’t have a solution for people running Windows 7/8 either. There is a DRM license resetting tool for Windows XP/Vista, but it won’t run on Windows 7/8 computers without some tinkering. Fail.

After exhausting all the options, settings, control panels on my computer, I found a useful post on an internet forum describing how to:
a) Disable the DRM service in Media Center
b) Extract the executable from Microsoft’s XP/Vista DRM Tool and run it in Windows.
c) Re-scan the computer.

There are a few steps that are different between Windows 7 (for which the guide was written), and the Windows 8 process, but by and large the steps are the same. This worked for me, and now I can watch as much Food Network as I want. Yay!

But the process to get to this point, and the “safeguards” that media companies put in place, was nothing short of obnoxious. Before discovering that forum post, I was about 15 seconds away from giving up and simply pirating everything I cared to watch. Yes, I was already paying for the content, but in my mind it’s still a damn shame. Because television is more than just “a few select shows you want to watch.” It’s kind of like the radio, a perpetual stream of content vying for your attention.

And if you turn people off to the current paradigm of “it just works” streaming television, and make them *want* Hulu and Netflix and even piracy, then you have failed as a company, and you have failed as a channel. People will no longer casually browse other shows, the phrase “channel surfing” will die off. Frustrating DRM schemes are accelerating society towards an à la carte viewing paradigm, and cable companies should be scared of that. There are SO many channels out there that will probably die if they are no longer bundled with larger packages. If they are paid solely on the basis of their viewership, they would no longer be economically viable.

In fact, this is exactly what YouTube is all about. It’s not a social network, it’s a commercial machine that monetizes content based on views. And this model may well be what murders Time Warner, Viacom, etc.

But it’s past noon now, and I should get to my homework. I’ll save the rest of this rant for some other time. Enjoy your revenue while it lasts, Comcast.

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