The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

DVR: A PHANTOM MENACE?
In response to Steve Outing's musings on a proposal to regulate Tivo and other digital video recorder hardware/services, Norm Duncan wonders why so many media people are so worried about what he considers to be a fancied-up VCR:

Tivo DOES NOT allow you to watch live television minus the commercials. There is no button on the Tivo remote to view television with or without commercials.

Tivo DOES NOT allow you to watch live television "on demand" as some have alleged, such as watching 60 Minutes on Saturday instead of waiting for its regular Sunday broadcast. The original broadcast of a show can only be viewed at the time it is broadcast by the network. The only way you can watch the program at a later time is to record it.

A Digital Video Recorder, whether a Tivo or some other brand, is exactly what the name implies. It is a R E C O R D E R used to record television broadcasts just as we have done for decades with a VCR -- except that Tivo records on a computer hard drive instead of tape and is much easier to use.

Just like a VCR, when you play back a previously recorded program on a Tivo, you can fast-forward through the commercials-- carefully watching of course, for the return of the program. Even then you still see the commercials-- they just go by faster. But since you have already previously seen each commercial at least 100 time before-- you know exactly what they are promoting even at the higher speed. Or, just like a regular television set, you can hit the MUTE button during the commercial. In our household, even with our dual-tuner DirecTV/Tivo unit, 99% of our television viewing is still in "real time" complete with all the commercials. Even when my wife watches a Tivo recorded show she rarely fast-forwards through the commercials.

Funny. When DVRs were first being rolled out, I realized that, in essence, they really were nothing more than VCR-like devices minus the maintenance of swapping tapes. I bet that's exactly how most people view DVRs now, and the reason why adoption hasn't been more widespread. The programming guide and recording functionality, which DVR fanatics swear by and argue are the machine's true defining characteristics (instead of the hard drive) probably seem like flashy bells-and-whistles to the average consumer.

This little essay is interesting to me because it give me a small window on how a fairly non-tech-savvy household interacts with a digital video recorder. The key example is Norm's pointing out that Tivo doesn't allow you to watch "60 Minutes" a day earlier than its scheduled broadcast time; no shit, right? Yet it reveals an interpretation of the "on-demand viewing" hype that I, for one, never considered was floating out there. It's enlightening, and I'd say that more people on the media planning side should take note.