Consumer Republic: New digital recorders give power to the people

They’re heeeere. “They” are a new generation of “personal video receivers” that brings a heightened level of digital choice to the great American pastime of watching TV.
First to market are digital set-top recorders TiVo and Replay. Introduced this spring, they’ll soon be followed by a similar box from Web TV and DISH satellite network as well as a receiver from News Corp.’s NDS, which has a huge program-storing hard drive, due next year.
With the coming of digital TV (for now, TiVo and Replay have to convert the analog signal to ones and zeros and back again), a digital recorder’s ability to mess with the TV schedule is sure to become as ubiquitous as the original tool of viewer empowerment: the channel zapper.
The advances over the old VCR offered by TiVo and Replay have long been anticipated. Since the early ’90s, we’ve been hearing about the great video-on-demand future, envisioned as a library of visual entertainment from which wired viewers could summon whatever diversion they fancied at any hour. Neither machine achieves that, but they do bring us closer to the day when viewers can command a TV schedule of their own.
Best of all, no one needs a grade- schooler in the house to figure out how to work the VCR. Forget about setting timers, selecting channels or inputting program numbers. Just pick the show and the programming software, updated daily via modem, does the rest.
In addition, you can capture up to 30 hours of TV. That’s the equivalent of 10 evenings of prime time. Such ease of use is nifty, but the feature sure to coax $500 to $1,500 out of the pockets of alpha tech-heads is the ability to “freeze” live programming.
Say the pizza arrives midshow. Hit a button, the action stops and the receiver begins recording the ongoing program on its vast hard drive. Tip the pizza guy, grab a slice and push again: The program continues where you left off. One small step for man, one giant step for the guy whose beer-burdened bladder cries out for relief in the fourth quarter.
The technology also allows viewers to do cool stuff like create their own instant replays without missing a second of the subsequent action. But the appeal of the invention goes beyond its utility to the thrilling illusion that we can make time stand still.
Indeed, the home page of TiVo’s Web site quotes satisfied customer “Jim,” who praises the product because it “frees me from my TV.” At first, this remark puzzled me. Surely everyone has the essential freedom from TV: Just turn the damn thing off. What Jim means is that the receiver breaks one of the last remaining powers the broadcast and cable networks have over viewers: control over the schedule.
Of course, conventional VCRs have already put a big dent in the scheduling authority of the nets. But between idiot-proof recording in bulk and the power to interrupt the programming flow, this new generation of set-top boxes takes us to a whole new era of “appointment TV”–except this time, the viewers are scheduling the appointments.
Now for the kicker: Did I mention the part about skipping over the ads?
Another tool of viewer mastery over time is a fast-forward button that moves in convenient, commercial-sized 30-second increments, enabling one to instantaneously leap over messages from the sponsor.
Even after all these years, no one knows the full impact on commercial exposure inflicted by viewers who fast-forward through recorded programming’s ads. But rest assured, this handy feature will make it worse. Technology giveth as well as taketh away.
Conversely, freedom from TV is not necessarily free. The modem connection that makes these receivers so smart also carries back to the source a record of viewer choices. True, TiVo customers can opt out of being watched by sending in a coupon.
But one can easily imagine a future in which viewers are offered incentives to allow data collection and happily take them. Which is why a couple of weeks ago, NBC bought a piece of TiVo Inc., envisioning the Holy Grail of targeting ads to specific audiences. “If it’s a household with three kids, then GM could promote its minivan” instead of throwing a generic ad at them, said a network exec.
At the risk of mouthing another futuristic clichƒ–the end of television as we know it–it does look like the end is nigh. Think how much of the art of TV programming is tied to its real-time character.
For instance, what happens to building evenings of programming or attracting audiences to new shows by scheduling them next to established hits? What happens to the media business when advertisers no longer buy programs to reach eyeballs in general, but buy direct access to the eyes themselves? These are questions the industry has been pondering for a decade. With gadgets like Replay and TiVo, we’re about to find out.