Digital Cable Bait and Switch
September 29, 2009 9:56 AM   Subscribe

My digital cable provider (comcast) has sold me a service which does not allow me to record any of the channels that I subscribe to and pay for every month. I have informed them of the issue and they have not responded with an adequate solution. What is the workaround?

Remember the old days of cable when you could just wire up your VCR and record Monday Night Football without any hassle? Well, "technological progress" has ensured us that it's no longer that easy.

I just signed up for comcast digital cable. The cable box is hooked up to my DVD/VCR combo (via RCA cables) and from there to the TV (via HDMI). When I try recording in any source mode (AV1 for example) an error comes up on the TV stating that I am attempting to record copyrighted material. The copyrighted material in question is just basic cable stuff - I'm not trying to record anything off of a movie channel or pay-per-view.

Called comcast. They said "tough luck" and tried to sell me a DVR at $16/month. I refuse to pay more for what should be a standard function of my VCR.

What do I need to buy and install to work around this comcast-created problem? Can anyone point me to some solutions? (If there's information on how to do this on the internets then I can't find anything recent.)
posted by quadog to Technology (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Unfortunately this is the direction that the cable companies are moving. They do not want to allow you to record TV without a DVR that they control. That is a big part of the whole move to HDMI, being that it is copyright-controlled.

It's hard to tell by your post, but does your VCR have an HDMI out, that is connected to your TV? or do you have an HDMI out from the cable box to the TV, and then some RCA cables from the cable box to the VCR?

RCA/Composite cables have no way of telling if you are connected to a VCR or to a TV...so if you remove the HDMI cable from the picture (just for testing) and see if you can see anything on the TV. (connect the composite cables to the TV directly).

This is the way most all digital TV services are headed. I hope you can get it working. :)
posted by AltReality at 10:06 AM on September 29, 2009


Just a note, you do not have to have a comcast DVR--TiVo records shows off of Comcast digital cable just fine.
posted by Kimberly at 10:14 AM on September 29, 2009


It's hard to tell by your post, but does your VCR have an HDMI out, that is connected to your TV?

I'll try to clarify this better. Here's the chain:

coaxial cable from wall > digital cable box > RCA cables (red, yellow, white) out > DVD/VCR combo HDMI out > into the TV

So the only HDMI cable is from the VCR/DVD to the TV. I didn't know that HDMI was copyright controlled. Thanks for the info.
posted by quadog at 10:14 AM on September 29, 2009


Maybe you're running across some variant of the Broadcast Flag? If so, try using an older VCR that wouldn't understand this instruction and thus, wouldn't throw up an error message and refuse to record. Because it does sound like your VCR is the device that's betraying you.
posted by odinsdream at 10:21 AM on September 29, 2009


Yeah, HDMI will carry the DRM signal. It's annoying, and becoming more pervasive.

Have you tried hooking the cable box up to the TV and recording from the TV instead of the cable box? I realize that it's a kludge that requires keeping the TV on, but it may Technically Work.
posted by mkultra at 10:30 AM on September 29, 2009


I'm assuming the error message is coming from your VCR, not the TV, as I don't think the broadcast flag would carry when downconverted to RCA, plus, why would your TV have a message about recording, since it's just a display device.

Most likely you're running into a form of macrovision copy protection... This is basically an analog broadcast flag that was implemented to prevent vhs copying. But, since it's analog, it's just a signal (non-visible) you can filter out with a device... it sounds like the one in common use is called "Digital Video Stabilizer". Would be worth calling your local radio shack-type place, or look for dvd/vhs reproduction sutdios in town and call them to see if they have any for sale.

Or check ebay!

Good luck.
posted by CharlesV42 at 10:44 AM on September 29, 2009


In addition to what CharlesV42 said, an older VCR (probably with no HDMI connectors) would probably not know how to interperate that broadcast flag, and record your video.

And for that matter, technically I believe sending the video over the RCA cables will lower the quality of your video....so the HDMI connection between the VCR and the TV really isn't doing anything to help your quality. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think you can get HD to travel over RCA. (without downconverting it)
posted by AltReality at 10:57 AM on September 29, 2009


I'm assuming the error message is coming from your VCR, not the TV

That is a safe assumption. Near as I can tell, since it is a new VCR (about 2 years old) there may be a broadcast flag built in.
posted by quadog at 10:59 AM on September 29, 2009


The CGMS "Allow No Copies" flag does exist in analog form, and can co-exist with the Analog Protection System or "Macrovision copy protection."

The cheapest option is to use an older VCR that does not recognize the CGMS signal. For a lot more money, you could purchase a time base corrector that allows you to strip out certain lines in the NTSC signal, usually masked by your monitor, that carry CGMS, APS and closed caption information.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:01 AM on September 29, 2009


VCR's and TV's are both DRM enforcement points now, sadly. They don't take their orders from you anymore.

Since the VCR is connected only via analog cables, I don't see how it would have any way of telling that the material is copyrighted or not. So I wonder if the problem is that the either the VCR simply refuses to record any "non-approved" content when HDMI is in use, or if the TV refuses any "unapproved" input with HDMI in use.

So, does the TV in question have RCA inputs? I think it might work if that link were also analog. You're already incurring the D to A degradation using RCA through the VCR anyway.

Do other tapes play OK with the TV hooked up to HDMI?

Or do you have another TV that's not HDMI (just an old spare with nothing but RCA or coax inputs) that you could use just to test ?
posted by tyllwin at 11:13 AM on September 29, 2009


Ooh, sorry, Y'know I really hadn't considered that the Comcast box might be passing an analog CGMS flag along. I'd test that possibility by seeing if the VCR will record something coming in from someplace besides the Comcast box.
posted by tyllwin at 11:16 AM on September 29, 2009


Honestly, I think you should bitch to your state and federal elected representatives, and your public utilities commission, because for the last decade or more the main voices they've heard about this sort of thing have been lobbyists for the copyright holders and cable companies.
posted by Good Brain at 12:13 PM on September 29, 2009


Can someone suggest where you can even buy a VCR these days?
posted by Rad_Boy at 1:06 PM on September 29, 2009


Can someone suggest where you can even buy a VCR these days?

To clarify this piggyback, I believe the specific issue is with newer VCRs' sensitivity to copyright signals. So the cheap fix may be to get an old VCR - one that doesn't have the built-in technology to read the signals and shut down the recording feature.

My guess: craigslist.
posted by quadog at 1:16 PM on September 29, 2009


Or goodwill. They may or may not work, but they're usually 4 dollars.
posted by CharlesV42 at 1:48 PM on September 29, 2009


Check and see which channels this occurs on. MNF is on ESPN, which most cable carriers encrypt with a copy once flag which means that HDMI will block pass-through and recording off. The FCC requires that cable companies leave broadcast channels (ABC, NBC, etc) open to record. Try one of those and see if you have the same issue.
posted by cgomez at 2:29 PM on September 29, 2009


My guess: craigslist.

Or pawnshop, or FreeCycle.

If you're near the Twin Cities in MN, I think I have one [at least 6-7 years old] in the basement.
posted by chazlarson at 3:06 PM on September 29, 2009


I'd try removing HDMI from the equation and see if that changes things.
Since you already have RCA cables in the mix, HDMI isn't doing any good on the picture quality front.
posted by sad_otter at 3:40 PM on September 29, 2009


I'm with posters above in running an analog cable (S-Video, another RCA) from the VCR and see what happens. The DRM support baked into the HDMI engine on your TV is not designed with VHS source in mind. (I've never seen a VCR with HDMI output myself!)
posted by MattD at 4:10 PM on September 29, 2009


As for the suggestion to get an older VCR - mine is 5+ yrs old. I can record, but it doesn't know what to do with the digital signal so I can only record from the channel the converter box is set to (it needs the converter to, well, convert).

The TV doesn't have to be on, so it's better than some solutions, but it does mean that I can't record something while I watch something else.

I don't know if this would be true of all old VCRs, but just something to keep in mind.
posted by scrute at 6:31 PM on September 29, 2009


"I'd try removing HDMI from the equation and see if that changes things.
Since you already have RCA cables in the mix, HDMI isn't doing any good on the picture quality front."

+1

Try replacing the HDMI with RCA cables.
posted by kenbennedy at 5:27 AM on September 30, 2009


I'm with posters above in running an analog cable (S-Video, another RCA) from the VCR and see what happens. The DRM support baked into the HDMI engine on your TV is not designed with VHS source in mind. (I've never seen a VCR with HDMI output myself!)

The TV is not recording anything. Since the HDMI cable is connecting the VCR to the TV, it's obviously not causing the issue.

The cable box is connected to the VCR with analog cables. Since the VCR is the recording device, the problem is between it and the source.
posted by odinsdream at 8:56 AM on September 30, 2009


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