Pushing Buttons

A man with a remote control in his hand is a scary thing. He zaps commercials the moment they appear by switching to another channel. In his frantic bid to outrun annoying sales pitches, he fails to return to the original channel in time, losing precious minutes from a program someone else in the room, inevitably, is watching.

But ask him if he’s seen any good ads lately, and he rattles off various offerings from Heineken, Circuit City, Geico. (The ad where the two squirrels wreck cars? Hilarious.)

Advertising is still reaching him.

You wouldn’t think so, given the stink that’s being raised about Replay TV4000, released just two weeks ago. Unlike earlier recording technology from ReplayTV and its rival, TiVo, this machine allows users to strip out ads with the click of a button—the “commercial advance” button, specifically, which downloads programs that remain ad-free through all subsequent playbacks.

Adding insult to injury, the “send show” button lets you forward those programs, still without ads, to friends.

Sweet, our hero would say. But to the movie studios and TV networks, it portends the death of free TV as we know it. Now ReplayTV and its parent, Sonicblue of Santa Clara, Calif., are facing four lawsuits.

“Advertisers will not pay to have their advertisements placed within television programming delivered to viewers when the advertisements will be invisible to those viewers,” reads the latest suit, filed in California federal court by Paramount Pictures, Disney Enterprises, NBC, Showtime Networks, UPN, Viacom International and CBS. The plaintiffs want the court to stop the distribution of ReplayTV’s new model.

That’s a lot of corporate muscle being wasted. When home video recorders hit the market in the ’70s, Universal and Disney tried to stop Sony’s Betamax by filing a copyright-infringement lawsuit. Sony won that round when the Supreme Court ruled the machine enabled consumers to copy programming for personal use, not for commercial purposes. VCRs did not kill free TV, much less stop advertising.

Sonicblue says using its new feature is no different than changing the channel or heading to the kitchen when ads come on. Andy Wolfe, the company’s chief technology officer, argues that you can’t force people to watch commercials. And he’s right.

ReplayTV’s bigger legal problems are likely to be in the sending of copyrighted programming to others. Perhaps it’s never heard of Napster.

Why don’t the studios and networks work with companies like Sonic blue to find more effective ways for ads to reach consumers? It’s time to ask us what ads we want to see, and when. Perhaps we want them at the beginning or end of a program, instead of several times in the middle.

For the studios and networks, it’s fear of the unknown. But it will take a lot more than Replay TV4000 to knock off the ad industry. “It’s a very tenacious industry,” says Doug Wood, an attorney with Hall, Dickler, Kent, Goldstein & Wood, a New York firm specializing in advertising law. “It will get you no matter what you do.”

What we really need to stop is this incessant channel surfing. Hey, guys, ever hear of the mute button?