Device To Rule Tv

Stop Action, Skip Ads With Recorders

August 09, 1999|By MICHAEL STROH | MICHAEL STROH,SUN STAFF

It's never been a better time to be a couch potato.

How would you like a machine that makes it easy to record your favorite TV shows, shields you from aggravating commercials and gives you a godlike ability to stop a live ballgame at will?

That's the promise of a new breed of television recording devices that will trickle onto store shelves in the coming months -- technology so novel that nobody knows what to call it.

Digital Video Recorder, Personal Television Recorder, Hard Disk Recorder -- these are just some of the names being used to describe this potential successor to the VCR. Whichever name sticks, know this about the device: "It's going to turn the entire world of television inside out," says analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

The first digital video recorders -- that's the name we'll go with here -- were unveiled this spring by Silicon Valley start-ups TiVo Inc. and Replay Networks Inc. Both companies' offerings start at around $700 and hold as much as 30 hours of television.

From the outside, these sleek black boxes retain the look and heft of a traditional VCR -- the only obvious difference being the lack of a tape slot. Inside, however, they are more akin to a computer, with a modem and humming hard disk drive.

Think of the device as a VCR for dummies. The digital video recorder converts incoming video signals -- "Hollywood Squares" or whatever you happen to be watching -- from your antenna, cable or satellite dish into a compressed digital stream of ones and zeros, and then stores it on the hard drive. Each night, the modem downloads the latest television schedules.

The upshot: No longer do you need to be an electrical engineer to record your favorite show. To capture "ER," for example, you simply scroll through the interactive TV Guide-like listings with your remote, highlight "ER" and flick the record button. The machine does the rest.

But these next-generation recorders are more than just smarter VCRs. The real magic comes when you're watching live TV. Digital video recorders make it possible to pause, rewind and, in some cases, fast-forward through a show as it's being broadcast.

It's as if you've suddenly been appointed head of the television network. Need to pre-empt "60 Minutes" for a few seconds to heed the call of nature or because your wife asks you to wash the dishes? No problem. Just press the pause button on the remote and watch Andy Rooney's jowls freeze mid-jiggle.

Hit the button again and the show picks up where you left off -- salvaging every delicious Rooney-ism and marital harmony in one stroke. Because hard disk technology can record and play back simultaneously, the digital video recorder continues to record the TV channel you're watching in real time until you catch up.

Another bonus: Once you're behind real time by a few minutes, the devices makes it easy to hop over annoying commercials by tapping the fast-forward button.

This ability to skip commercials is raising eyebrows in the broadcast industry, whose programming is largely supported by ads. "It's going to start by making consumers very happy. Then eventually it's going to make television networks very unhappy," says Bernoff, the Forrester analyst.

Bernoff estimates 14 million U.S. homes will have a digital video recorder in their living room by 2004 -- a pace far quicker than Americans brought VCRs into the home, he notes. If that happens, Bernoff forecasts, 10 years from now 50 percent fewer people will watch commercials.

"It's going to be the end of free quality television as we know it," he says.

That remains to be seen, of course. In the meantime, don't put your VCR in the closet. You can't watch a movie from Blockbuster on a digital video recorder. And the first digital video recorders to hit store shelves carry a price that may turn off average consumers.

But just wait. Analysts predict more electronics companies will begin cranking out digital video recorders in the coming years. As they do, prices will plunge while storage capacity swells.

Watching the old boob tube will never be the same.

Pub Date: 08/09/99

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