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Friday, September 29, 2006

The Digital Divide and Opera

Over the past several weeks the opera-blogging world has been abuzz with the announcement by newly appointed general manager Peter Gelb that New York’s Metropolitan Opera will increase its music distribution far beyond Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, a staple of the airwaves since 1931. For most of those years these broadcasts were sponsored by Texaco, which bailed out not long after being bought by Chevron. Ever since then, Saturday afternoons at the opera have been financed by a variety of sponsors, the latest of whom—Toll Brothers, the luxury home builder—is currently struggling with some less profitable times.

The Met will expand its public face in threefold fashion by embracing technology that has become second nature to much of the music-consuming public. While a number of details remain to be disclosed, the gist of Gelb’s initiatives includes the following:

Opera lovers are fairly salivating over the prospects of downloading legendary Met performances by some of the world’s greatest singers. A quick scan of opera blogs yields numerous posted wish-lists, with contributors declaring “I can’t wait to hear……when he/she sang……on……Saturday afternoon.” The redesigned Met Web site is a great source for this kind of information, although I haven’t taken the time to dig into it myself.

As with many folks “of a certain age,” those Met Texaco broadcasts were our introduction to the world of opera—especially for people who lived in the hinterlands, far from the Met’s stage where miraculous things were happening thanks to Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters and Anna Moffo, along with so many others. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I would occasionally spend the weekend at my aunt’s apartment, where we’d play cards and listen on my grandma’s old Crosley tabletop radio to that afternoon's opera being broadcast on the local FM classical music station, WCLV.

With all of the technological innovations introduced over the past decade, it’s great to see the Met finally embrace 21st-century concepts. As far as I’m concerned, anything that makes opera accessible to more people is truly a good thing.

Among the bulleted options noted above, the one methodology that holds the greatest fascination for me is the third—Hi-Def video distribution. No matter how delightful it is to hear a great opera performance, it’s even better to both SEE and hear it, so long as the lighting is adequate, the camera work makes sense, and the sound reproduction is equal to or better than the visuals. I’m sure that those of us who own operas on DVD have at least one performance where one or more of those factors leave something to be desired.

For a long time my wife tried to convince me that “Doctor Zhivago” was a great movie. I never saw it when it was first released and had somehow managed to miss out during its subsequent theatrical re-releases. The bits and pieces I’d caught on television—whether on cable or interrupted by commercials during network broadcasts—did not make any particular impression on me. But some years ago our neighborhood movie theater (Denver's Continental, purchased by United Artists) went through a significant remodeling. Rather than tear down the single, giant-screen edifice, the new owners turned it into a multiplex while retaining the massive auditorium. As a result, it’s the last remaining big screen in the state. When a one-week run of “DZ” was announced, we made sure to see it that Saturday night. My wife was right, as she usually is about these things. Seeing “Doctor Zhivago” on the giant screen made me realize just how magnificent a movie it is.

I’m guessing that a similar opportunity might cause movie-theatre goers to say the same thing about “Il Trovatore,” or any other opera that would find its way to the local Cineplex. Sure, there have been operas made into movies—Placido Domingo has participated in several such productions—but “movie-izing” an opera lends to it an unfortunate artificiality. In recent years I’ve watched movie versions of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” It seems that the director’s primary motivation is to broaden the viewer’s perspective, but in a very distracting way. Attending an opera requires some suspension of disbelief, especially concerning the stage setting. [More is required when someone like Joan Sutherland sings the role of 17-year-old Lucia, but that’s an entirely different matter.] When “Otello” opens with a storm-tossed boat on stage, one’s imagination (and a skillful lighting director) helps to create the illusion of the moment. Actually seeing a boat tossed about, rain falling in the singers’ faces while lip-synching to a pre-recorded track, would hardly provide the same thrill.

The Met’s decision to broadcast its programming directly to movie theatres via satellite is an interesting one. Since the late ’90s, the movie distribution industry has been looking for ways to streamline a process that’s remained essentially unchanged since movie houses first opened back in the early years of the 20th century. Every week, giant octagonal metal cases show up at a theatre’s door, while others await removal. Inside are reels and reels of 35mm film, ready to be loaded onto projectors.

Technology Spiel
There are many drawbacks to this manner of distribution. Complete prints of an average-length feature film can run as high as $2000. Multiply that times the number of theatres showing that particular movie (500? 3,000?) and you see how quickly these costs add up. Then there is the problem of the film itself. Early movie stock was printed on a nitrocellulose film base, which was highly flammable. Remember that traumatic scene in “Cinema Paradiso” when the theatre catches on fire? In 1949 Kodak introduced “safety film” printed on cellulose triacetate, and today a polyester-based safety film is in use. But regardless of the medium, every subsequent viewing causes a degradation of the film’s surface. Over time, scratches and dirt make watching movies a far less pleasant experience, creating the need to replace old prints with new ones. There’s another two grand of sunk costs to consider.

A move to digital distribution offers a wide range of benefits, many of which are discussed here in a fascinating albeit self-serving Windows Media white paper on the topic. But expenses aside—based upon prices for the Sony system that debuted in 2005, including projectors, lenses, servers and management software, the estimated cost to outfit a screen could run as high as $140,000—the main concern involves security. After a brief interlude, I’ll pick up this thread a few paragraphs farther down the page.

A Cautionary Tale
In the early days of cable television, subscribers essentially had two programming choices—basic or premium. The padlocked, dome-shaped box in your back yard was equipped with a line filter if you had selected the less expensive option. Upgrading to premium service meant that a service person would come out to your residence, unlock the box, and remove the filter. Back in the early 1980s a friend of mine made a bundle by offering “unauthorized upgrades,” armed as he was with a pair of bolt cutters, some wire-splicing material, and replacement padlocks. The only way the cable company could discover the theft was if they sent someone out on a service call—rarely necessary since the service was pretty bulletproof—who would then realize that the key he/she carried didn’t fit the lock.

All this changed with the development of addressable cable devices. Premium subscribers were given set-top boxes that could deliver specific content directly to them, based upon the device’s unique electronic “address” and whatever services they had ordered. This technology allowed cable viewers to customize their TV packages as well as take advantage of pay-per-view options.

The introduction of small-dish satellite television added yet another viewing dimension. Here in the States there are two competing providers—DirectTV and DISH Network. Both operate with similar technology, where subscribers set 18-inch-diameter receivers on rooftops or balconies, pointed into the sky to capture television signals being beamed across a broad geographic “footprint.” The signals coming off the satellite contain every possible channel—with some systems having so many channels that two dishes and multiple satellites are necessary to receive them all—and a SIM card placed in the consumer’s receiver at the time of installation is coded with the level of programming that’s been purchased.

As with many things technological, scammers are usually right behind the developers, and oftentimes one step ahead. For a while now, black-market SIM cards make it possible to watch all the premium channels while paying only for the basic ones. Many of these cards are pirated copies of masters carried by repair technicians who work directly for the satellite providers. When setting up a new subscriber it’s necessary to test every channel for receptivity, since most systems allow their customers to purchase premium programs on a show-by-show basis. If I choose to watch something special on HBO but that channel is not part of my monthly subscription, I can call (or sometimes e-mail) my provider and ask for digital permission to access it. But if my ability to receive it hadn’t been properly tested, I might be charged for something I can’t view, which can be a customer service nightmare.

Satellite providers develop new versions of SIM cards every few years, shipping them to existing subscribers along with installation instructions. By changing security codes they’re hoping to defeat signal thieves, but it’s only a matter of time before the codes are cracked and new black-market cards are available to those who wish to buy them.

On a related commercial topic, the pirating of newly released feature films has become a huge business, especially in overseas markets (China, for example) where copyright laws are lax, nonexistent or difficult to enforce. The typical way in which the latest blockbuster finds its way onto DVD and thence for sale on the streets of Hong Kong, Tokyo or New York, is by the low-tech method of screen filming. Someone with a digital camera sits in a first-run theatre and shoots the movie right off the screen. Drawbacks are many, including poor-quality reproduction, ambient noise—people chatting in the auditorium, the sound of crunching popcorn, etc.—and the obviousness of some guy watching the movie with a viewfinder glued to his face.

A less common method, but one that offers up a higher-grade product, involves collusion between the film distributor and the pirate. Canisters set for delivery on Friday morning get waylaid on Thursday night, just long enough for the reels to be run through a projector/scanner, stored digitally on a PC, and then burned onto a master DVD for mass duplication. This process is considerably more expensive as the operational hardware and software costs many times more than the average digital movie camera. But selling copies of Tom Cruise’s latest action film for ten bucks apiece, the same week it debuts on the big screen, can make a pirate distributor as much as half a million dollars. That will buy a lot of software upgrades.

Back to Security
If there’s one aspect of digital film distribution that scares the bejeesus out of the movie studios, it involves theft of the transmitted signal. As noted above, lack of security is probably the biggest stumbling block to the widespread showing of digital movies in theatres, far more than the cost of retrofitting the projection booth. Intercepting a signal meant for the Googolplex down the street and using the data to burn your own DVD of the movie—or a thousand copies of it—would create theatre-quality media at pennies on the dollar, with nary a dime of royalties to the studios that produced it.

To better understand this dilemma, picture the way satellites distribute their signals. Launched into geosynchronous orbit hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface, a digital stream of data is transmitted from the movie studio or production house. After bouncing off the satellite’s receptors, data cascades toward the ground in an ever-broadening cone, available to anyone with a collection dish and a receiver equipped with the proper decoding software. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re sitting, just so long as you’re situated somewhere within the data footprint and holding a properly fitted receiver.

Personal Disclaimer
The reason I’m interested in this aspect of the business is due to my past experience in this field. From early 2000 to the beginning of 2003, I was director of business development for a technology start-up that had developed a unique commercial use for the Global Positioning System. Known as CyberLocator Inc.—regrettably defunct due both to lack of funding and a deliverable product salable to actual clients, the kinds of things real businesses need in order to be successful—the concept involved using GPS data to determine whether or not someone could receive specific e-mail or gain access to a GPS-protected Web site. It was developed all the way back in the 1980s by a scientist involved in the original design of the GPS satellite system, and is pretty simple to understand. If you’re in the right place—i.e., the proper pre-registered place—when you try to log on to a secure site, the password you use for access is accepted. If you’re somewhere else, even having the proper credentials does you no good. As we used to say, “Your location is your password.” If you want to know more, drop me a line and I’ll send you a white paper I wrote on the subject.

Tying this into the discussion noted above, GPS encryption/decryption is an ideal security factor for satellite movie distribution. Picture, if you will, the following scenario:

You own a movie theatre located at such-and-such a spot (latitude, longitude, altitude), one which you have already registered with your movie distributor. Mounted on your roof is a small satellite dish that has one additional element to it, a GPS sensor. Every Friday morning, which is when new movies are usually released here in the U.S., your rooftop dish collects the digital transmission of half a dozen new movies (or whatever you’re allotted) along with its public-key encoding, sending everything straight to the projector/server for storage. At this point, what you’ve received is useless because the private key needed to unlock the data has not yet been sent.

A short time later, your theatre server—connected to the Internet as well as to the dish/sensor apparatus above—receives an e-mail query from the distributor’s computer in California. The message back from your location includes encrypted raw data from the GPS sensor, which is then interpreted at the distribution point and matched against your pre-registered location. Do they match? If so, you receive a follow-on e-mail that includes the private key to unlock that week’s digital movies. If not, you get bupkes–nada–zilch.

There are tons of safeguards that prevent location data from being falsified, but there’s no reason to go into that here. Bottom line—this is pretty much the only way to ensure that the satellite transmission of digital movies is safe from being pirated.

By the way, the closest we came to commercializing this service involves the regulation of legal online gambling. Follow this Google search on “Global Cyber Licensing” and you’ll see what I mean.

Back On Topic
Anyway, I’ll be interested to see exactly how these operas end up at my local theatre, assuming that they do. As far as I know, none of the local Denver theatres is equipped with a digital projector system, so maybe we’re S.O.L. I think the closest one might be in Salt Lake City, or perhaps Las Vegas.

But coming soon to a theatre near you (we can only hope) will be more of those one-night-only musical shows that seem to always crop up in the coming attractions. You know the ones I mean—“Whitesnake in Concert” or “A Very Special Evening with the Monsters of Metal.” Only this time it’ll be Bellini’s “I Puritani” or the world premiere of Tan Dun’s “The Last Emperor.”

I can hardly wait!

I do not think that The Met’s decision to broadcast its programming directly to movie theatres via satellite is going to be a successful one. The Houston Opera used to give a few 'free' concerts per year on a big screen outside the theater (not sure if they still are, we have moved). That worked well because people would come and bring wine, cheese, bread (well at least we did ;-) and it was nice to be out and sit under the stars and enjoy it. Still there was quite a bit of socializing going on and that was ok, it was a different sort of experience.

To be in a cold movie theatre with the smell of faint rancid popcorn hanging in the air, I just don't think it is the right atmosphere. And even though I think it is great that they are movie-izing opera’s to make it perhaps more accessible to a broader public that would normally shy away from going to the theatre, I think TV is the best way to go there. Perhaps as specials on PBS.
But for me Opera is to be enjoyed in person. I compare it to seeing a painting. Looking at a photo of a masterpiece online is just not the same as when you see the 'real' thing in a museum, and for me the same goes with opera.
Or am I being a snob now?

Oops sorry for writing so much!

PS Your wife is so right: Doctor Zhivago is an absolute classic!
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