What is This Thing Called TiVo?

by Marjorie Dorfman

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s TiVo!    – The Dorfman Archives

Have you heard about the tapeless VCR that has taken over the television industry? Do you feel left out because most of your friends have one and you don’t? Well, fret no more. Read on for more information, coming straight from one not in the know.

Someone once said that once you own a TiVo, you will wonder how you ever managed to live without one. Without what did you say? You might ask, looking like the rear end of an unsophisticated donkey, if you’re anything like me. I first heard about TiVo a few months ago on the Oprah Winfrey show, and had no idea that I was watching the birth not of the blues, but of a push-button technological coup d’etat. TiVo users swear that the device has revolutionized their lives, altering domestic routines and granting an unprecedented opportunity to wrest control over broadcasters by determining the time and manner in which television will be viewed. Skipping ads and defying the scheduling structure of the advertising powers that may no longer soon be is both thrilling and, on a more visceral level, almost illicit.

The two VCRs that live in my house are still a source of mystery to me. I can only recognize the two remotes, and sometimes I get them confused as well! Setting the time and date from a temperamental menu every time Daylight Savings rolls around or even after a storm blackout, has been a pain in places I’ve been brought up not to mention. I cannot envision a tapeless wonder being less complicated, but I’ve been wrong before. (In 1989 I was wrong.) One unexpected development and one that never occurred with owners of the VCR, has been the almost cult status that TiVo has achieved. It’s like a private club that is easy to join and so addictive that it is impossible to leave. According to Warren St. James of the New York Times, "if one types into Google the phrase ‘TiVo has changed my life,’ one will summon at least an afternoon’s worth of reading."

It is an odd phenomenon considering that the company producing TiVo has not advertised since the year 2000. Their mutant wonder hooks up to a television and can record up to 80 hours of programming on a hard drive. It grants a freedom similar to the effects of insect repellent, as commercials and other unwanted ads can be zapped with the merest touch of a button. At its core, TiVo is only a hard drive with an electronic TV guide, which digitizes an incoming TV signal and records it on the drive. Simple, but ingenious. This allows a user to play it back at his or her leisure, pause, fast forward and automatically record shows for future playback. This power is akin only to the divine right of advertising kings!

There is no question that TiVo equals freedom. The owner of such a device controls the television and not the other way around. Like all freedoms however, this one too comes with a price. In this case, it is around $250 for a model with a hard drive capable of storing 40 hours of programs, or $350 for an 80 hour machine. There is also a $12.95 monthly fee or a one-time lifetime charge of $250 for online access to TiVo’s computer servers. The systems require cable or satellite television and a phone line to download scheduling information.

FCC Chairman, Michael Powell, recently referred to TiVo as "God’s Machine." I am sure that the movie industry felt the same way about the VCR when it burst upon the movie lovers' and couch potato scene more than twenty years ago. Broadcasters and their program suppliers have had almost total control over how consumers view their products since the dawn of television. Now this level of consumer control is like a Goliath with significant others, because it has made it more difficult for the manufacturers to effectively market PVRs (personal video recorders). There is also the matter of the Digital Video Recorder War, a battle of borders that beg to be defined.

The war is divided into two camps: the TiVo and its competitor, Sonicblue, which is the maker of ReplayTV. The question is which will come to dominate the future of digital video recorders and, perhaps, the future of television itself. Some analysts predict that in the next five years there will be tens of millions of DVRs which will allow users to watch television in a way that will give network programmers permanent apoplexy. Complicating this digital utopia of freedom (and vengeance is mine sayeth the consumer) is the loss of ad revenue by the media companies and it is here where the product war enters, but not laughing.

The two rivals have poured salt into the proverbial wound by taking divergent approaches in their attitudes towards content companies. TiVo has been accommodating the firms, teaming up with broadcasters and advertisers to offer special TiVo-only "advertainment." Meanwhile back at the ranch, Sonicblue has added features to its DVR that are so offensive to media companies that several have banded together to do what Americans do best: sue ReplayTV into shame-on-you oblivion. (If there is such a place, it’s nowhere near the digital utopia mentioned earlier!) Sonic blue claims that its features are only there because consumers want them and that the networks’ lawsuit is actually increasing Sonicblue’s popularity. (Isn't that annoying?)

Regardless of what the future may bring, one thing is for sure: The TiVo is, and others of its ilk are, here to stay. Just as 45rpm, 78rpm and long playing records have passed into musical history since CDs and DVDs have found their way into the recording industry, so, soon I am afraid, the dusty shelf will have to make room for the VCR of days gone by. I still don't understand what will replace the tangibility of a tape, but then I guess I don’t have to. Cheer up, though. Until all this shifting happens, we can all find some other use for those tapes. I only have about a thousand in my personal library. How about a bonfire?

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Copyright 2003