Oh goodie, more TV!

A host of new technology aims at feeding and controlling our television addictions

THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION? <br>TiVo DVRs are like VCRs but with a hard disk and without the hassles of videotapes. Here, Charlie Fulton shows his system that allows him to watch what he wants when he wants.

TiVo DVRs are like VCRs but with a hard disk and without the hassles of videotapes. Here, Charlie Fulton shows his system that allows him to watch what he wants when he wants.

Photo by Tom Angel

Being the master of your domain can take on many meanings, but in the living room having control over your television is a prized and, until now, elusive privilege. But that’s where such tools as TiVo and ReplayTV come in.

Undeniable friends of the couch potato, these two digital video recorders (DVRs) developed in the late-'90s are hot. They have slowly and steadily seeped their way into the consciousness of the masses. Set-top boxes allow you to remove the ball and chain that currently connects the rest of us to our TVs. They can be especially handy for college students, who can study for that mid-term now and watch later.

“Basically, it removes your dependence on a TV schedule,” said Lance Ohara, senior product manager with SONICblue, ReplayTV’s parent company. “It gives you your life back. TV is a big part of the American lifestyle, but as opposed to having to rush home to watch Friends on NBC and, later, CSI on CBS, you just record it. You come home and have the contents on your ReplayTV.”

Oh, sure, you can set your VCR to tape a show, but comparing a VCR to a TiVo or ReplayTV unit is like matching a Volkswagen with a NASCAR race car. DVR access is digital and immediate, similar to how navigating an audio CD compares to an old-fashioned cassette.

You’ve undoubtedly dealt with the clumsiness of VHS recording. And even if you successfully set your VCR to record when you’re away from home, you can record for only a maximum of six hours. Not only can a DVR record up to 320 hours of programming, but like a well-trained dog it can be taught to obey many commands and tricks.

Recording a program with TiVo and ReplayTV is a one- or two-click process. And more than that, your wish is its command. Not only can you set your DVR to record Friends at 8 p.m., but you can just as easily set it to record all new NBC episodes of Friends when they come on, all broadcasts of Friends on any network, or even every program in which, say, Jennifer Aniston appears, including movies and guest spots on variety shows.

Charlie Fulton is a 25-year-old Chico “TiVotee,” if you will. He bought his TiVo back in January 2001 and loves it. His TiVo is set up to record South Park, Late Show With David Letterman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons and every Sacramento Kings game. He quickly pointed out its superiority over a standard VCR.

“It’s better because you don’t have to mess around with videotapes,” Fulton said. “There’s no swapping tapes, no rewinding, and it remembers where you left off. If you watch, say, 17 minutes of a show and stop it, when you return you pick it up from wherever you left off.”

Not only can you record all occurrences of a program, but, with the help of TiVo’s and ReplayTV’s highly evolved electronic program guides, you have a wider set of choices. TiVo’s “Wish List” feature allows you to record shows based on your favorite actor, director or sports team. Similarly, with ReplayTV, “you can record based on your hobbies—cars, dogs or Hawaii,” Ohara said.

Both TiVo and ReplayTV allow you to record oodles of programming on one convenient hard drive and let you pause, rewind and skip through commercials on live TV (more on commercials later), but their most alluring trait is the scheduling control they give the viewer.

The cost for television freedom? Some call it a bargain, while others, who sneer at the idea of TV playing a bigger role in their lives, call it strictly a luxury item or even a complete waste. TiVo, which offers 60 hours of storage, costs $400, plus a $249 lifetime service fee or a $12.95 monthly fee. ReplayTV offers four models, beginning at $450, plus a $250 service activation fee, for a 40-hour-capacity unit. The top-of-the-line ReplayTV, which can hold up to 320 hours of programming, comes with a substantially higher $1,750 price tag.

While TiVo and ReplayTV prices are straightforward, their commercial-skipping features, while hailed by consumers, have caused controversy. TV networks, which rely on billions of dollars’ worth of advertising to keep their programs free, have become uneasy, claiming that companies may not be willing to advertise if consumers are simply going to leapfrog over every commercial. While not equipped specifically with a QuickSkip button like ReplayTV, TiVo offers fast-forward speeds of 20 times and 60 times faster than live TV, which Fulton says makes it easy to jump over ads.

Some say this practice of skipping commercials will wind up biting consumers in the rear end, resulting in the public’s footing the bill for TV programming with its wallet rather than today’s traditional method of “payment,” sitting through commercials.

Photo by Tom Angel

Other possible solutions being kicked around include product placement or mentions within the programs themselves. Imagine watching The West Wing, when President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) picks up a can of soda, takes a sip, and says, “Ahh, Pepsi, for those who think young. Now where were we? Let’s talk about the election.”

Another idea is for commercials to contain contests or other gimmicks to keep people from skipping over them or arrangements that keep a sponsor’s logo in the corner of the screen for part or all of a show.

Fulton thinks the networks are getting a little ahead of themselves.

“If there’s a commercial that catches my eye or grabs my attention, then I go back and watch the ad,” he said. “By and large, I skip them when I see commercials that I don’t really want to see, like feminine-hygiene products.”

It can also be argued that even non-DVR viewers, nowadays virtually all armed with remote controls, use commercials as an opportunity to click away for a quick news, weather or sports break. Ohara, who paused for some time and said he had to be careful addressing the issue due to pending litigation, did make clear ReplayTV’s point of view. There have been ways to skip commercials for years, long before DVRs, he said. Since the beginning of television, people have used commercials as a time to get a snack from the fridge or use the bathroom. So far, ReplayTV (SONICblue) has been successful in court.

While TiVo and ReplayTV offer many of the same services, TiVo touts its ability to “learn” its customers’ viewing habits. It does this by taking information viewers feed it, via hitting the “recording suggestion” icon, and then pressing a green icon for thumbs-up or red icon for thumbs-down. It takes this information, analyzes it and then recommends or even automatically records programs for you that it “thinks” you will like. Fulton, for one, likes the service.

“I found out about a lot of programs, like Becker with Ted Danson,” he said, “that I didn’t know were out there.”

Others have criticized this service as allowing TiVo to be a spy in your home, with the ability to collect and distribute data about you. Ohara, while not addressing that stance, stated more diplomatically that it is a big philosophical difference between the two companies.

“Our perspective is your hard-disk space is yours,” he said. “Rather than recording things you may want, we leave it open to what you do want. We leave all the control up to the consumer.”

Attempts to reach a TiVo media representative were unsuccessful.

ReplayTV offers a controversial feature that TiVo does not called “Send Shows,” which lets you send over the Internet videos, including programs you recorded from TV, to ReplayTV-enabled friends and family. While a neat feature for consumers, several powers-that-be want to eliminate that feature, claiming it violates copyright laws, especially if done in volume.

So, why haven’t consumers yet embraced DVRs en masse?

“I think it’s the sheer amount of things that they do,” Fulton said. “It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around all the things it can do for you. Some have said that they aren’t being advertised well, which may be because it’s hard to squeeze in everything they can do in an ad.”

But the DVR growth trend, which Ohara and Fulton both say word of mouth will help propel, is undeniable. While DVRs have not yet taken over the world, many experts predict a huge rise in demand over the next several years. DVRs will penetrate 1.5 percent of U.S. TV households by the end of 2002, increasing to 25 percent in 2008, according to the Carmel Group research report.

“As [DVRs] get more mainstream, people will know what they can do, and they will take off,” Ohara said. “People are saying, once they get one home, they can’t live without it. This is a first step in a whole revolution.”

Ohara said SONICblue’s Home Group is looking at ways to "remove the boundaries," expanding ReplayTV with audio and video products that widen consumers’ home entertainment abilities. In fact, just this month, SONICblue announced a partnership with computer chip-maker Intel. It expects to begin production on a personal video player, for release next year, in which consumers will be able to take a ReplayTV show they recorded, download it to a portable player and take the show with them.