PVRs let viewers zap commercials and other trivia. Can TV survive?

September 25, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Let's fast-forward to the very near future and see what a typical night of television viewing will be like:

You get home from work and watch your favorite hour-long soap opera in 40 minutes. You watch the nightly news in 15. "Seinfeld" in 21. "Monday Night Football" in 26, and a World Series game in about 20.

It will be easy to watch everything that quickly - just skip the commercials. And everything else you'd rather not watch, such as time-outs, pitching changes, close-up-and-personals, movie credits and those boring talking heads.

What makes this possible is the personal video recorder, or PVR, a box with a hard drive inside that connects to your set and offers remarkable control over live television - or almost-live television. With services such as ReplayTV and TiVo, the leaders in the PVR market, you can surf through a broadcast as though you were rewinding, fast-forwarding and pausing a videocassette.

The technology is sure to change the way American households use their TV sets, and some backers predict that commercial-zappers will mean the end of mass-market television. Commercials have paid for network TV for a half-century, but no one knows what will happen if millions of couch potatoes are armed with remote controls that can blast ads off the screen at the touch of a "skip" button.

"The idea here is to put control into the viewer's hands," says Jim Hollingsworth, a senior vice president at ReplayTV, which is based in Mountain View, Calif. "And part of that is definitely the ability to skip advertisers that don't interest you. The feedback we're getting is that our users definitely find that feature appealing."

So far, only a handful of users are zapping away, at least in terms of the massive TV market. Last year, only 18,000 people bought PVRs, which range in price from $500 to $800. But analysts say they expect the number of buyers will grow to 500,000 by the end of this year.

TiVo, based in Alviso, Calif., has signed up more than 50,000 subscribers in the past eight months.

Investors have poured more than $200 million into TiVo and ReplayTV. Forrester Research predicts that the recorders will "become the most successful new consumer electronics products in history."

"Our TiVo is kind of irreplaceable in our house right now," says Steve Pospisil, 37, a businessman from Abingdon and an early adopter of the technology. "It's so easy and mindless. We really are kind of creating our own programming whenever we watch TV."

So how does it work?

Think of TiVo and ReplayTV as VCRs on steroids. Like old-fashioned videocassette recorders, they can be programmed to capture shows ahead of time, but they store up to 30 hours of broadcasts - 10 times the capacity of any tape.

More importantly, they can play and record at the same time, which allows them to create a small but critical time warp.

Whenever you tune in, the box starts to record the broadcast on its hard drive, a process known in the trade as "buffering." Since everything you see on your screen is being recorded, you can rewind back to any part of the buffer.

If you miss a line in a movie, you can hit a button on your remote and it will skip back. Sports fanatics can watch plays over and over during a live broadcast, because even while the box is rewinding, it's still recording ahead.

Once you're through watching the replay, you fast-forward till you reach the "live" action.

"We can't live without it - I'm hooked," says Lee Schuman, 51, a Sykesville resident and liquor company president who watches ReplayTV with his wife and five cats. "It makes TV perform at your schedule and the way you want it to. I'm addicted to `One Life to Live' and I can always see the show now whenever I want, and can easily cut out the commercials."

To get rid of commercials in "live" broadcasts, users can start the recorder at the beginning of the show and watch it themselves about 15 minutes later. If they time it right, they can zap all the advertising without quite catching up to the real-time transmission. Chopping commercials this way can shorten hour-long programs to 46 minutes.

From three hours to one

In a test last week using NBC's much-criticized Olympics coverage, TiVo's fast-forward button whittled a three-hour broadcast full of commercials, ceaseless talk and color fillers down to 58 minutes of real action.

How personal video recorders will affect TV advertising is still unclear. Coca-Cola and Universal Pictures recently announced plans to advertise on ReplayTV. Coke's trademark polar bear, for example, will show up on ReplayTV's on-screen menus.

But many traditional network advertisers may have to change their approach. Taking no chances, NBC has investments in both ReplayTV and TiVo, and wants to come up with a TV advertising model for the future.

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