Tune in, Drop out

Replay TV visited our West Coast offices recently to give the Luddites who write for this magazine and its sister publications a demonstration. Now, I’m the kind of guy who thinks the phrase “early adopter” refers to someone who buys a Rumanian baby before the mother gives birth. I’m not exactly your interactive TV target consumer. Even so, I was dumfounded by the cool things I could do with a Replay box: freeze frame, fast forward, zap, personal programming, slow motion. I got tired just listening to the demonstration.

Yet as appreciative as I am about the ability to program my very own Pamela Lee Network, the interactive experience left me anxious and cranky. It seems like an awful lot of work just to watch TV whenever I want to.

I ask you: Is the viewing experience really enhanced by freeze frame or slow motion? (Well, maybe on the Pamela Lee Network, but that’s another column.)

I was also struck by a revelation: This is why media agency executives are only half joking when they talk about needing anthropologists on staff.

I bet when my television finally goes interactive—as everyone’s will, one way or another—I won’t use more than 20 percent of all options available. Most consumers today may surf through dozens of channels; in actuality, they only watch a handful on a regular basis.

When we have 200 radio networks digitally beamed into our cars (next year), we’ll still only program five or six stations to listen to all the time. Similarly, once you set up a home page on the Internet, you almost never change it.

We have all become victims of media shock.

Too much choice is paralyzing us. Millions of Americans are sitting slack-jawed on their couches, motionless, while 10 different remote controls gather dust and cat fur on the coffee table.

If that picture sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. Except for the remotes—and the interactive set top box perched like a high-tech fertility totem on your TV set—that’s exactly what the American viewer circa 1959 looked like.

We’ve forgotten TV viewers’ dirty little secret: We don’t want to be masters of our electronic domain. Some choice is good, sure, but frankly, that’s not why we watch TV. What we want from television is to be lulled into oblivion. Anesthetized, yes. Liberated, no.

In fact, media shock is probably the most daunting challenge advertisers in any discipline are going to face in the 21st century. Not who is using what, or which delivery vehicle is going to persevere, but rather how people will use technology.

Media executives, creative ponytails and account suits alike are wrestling with this critical issue and nobody has any answers. Until we find some, Replay, TiVo and the like may get a lot of investors, but I question how many users they’ll accumulate.

At any rate, I have no time to learn how to program a television. Pamela Lee’s new detective show is on, and I have to place a call to Rumania.