With new services, viewers make prime time anytime

TV is poised for sweeping change as digital technology goes mainstream

August 12, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Four summers ago, Michael Broumberg sat, glued to his television set, trying to witness every highlight of the 2000 Olympics.

This year, the mass marketing of a revolutionary technology has changed how he and millions of Americans are watching TV. With just a few clicks of a button, the retired environmental specialist plans to program a digital video recorder - best known by the brand name TiVo - to capture Olympic events from swimming to shot put. Instead of hovering by his TV, he'll walk his dogs, watch HBO's Six Feet Under on Sunday nights, even dine out - and catch the games when he feels like it.

"It changes everything. It puts you - not the programmers - in control of your TV viewing," the 67-year-old said.

The Gardenville resident and his wife, 62-year-old Dale Dixon, are part of a sweeping transformation in the way Americans watch and interact with television. With cutting-edge technology and services such as digital video recorders and DVD subscriptions, Americans have sophisticated new options for TV viewing that go far beyond the familiar, but hard-to-program VCR.

And tomorrow, even as NBC begins rolling out more than 1,200 hours of carefully choreographed Olympic coverage on seven channels, millions of viewers will be able to decide for themselves just when they will watch what's being offered.

This switch in viewing habits has been coming slowly. While digital technology has been in use since 1999, what's new is its availability. This summer, a slew of competitors have entered the market. Blockbuster yesterday began offering DVD subscriptions that are delivered by mail. And Comcast and other large cable companies recently introduced their versions of TiVo to tens of millions of digital cable subscribers. Experts predict that within a year, viewers in 35 million homes (about one-third of all TV households in the United States) will be regular users of some form of DVRs and video-on-demand. The change may prove as significant as the arrival of cable TV in the 1980s, which broke the monopoly of the Big Three commercial networks. Already, what shows are produced in Hollywood are being affected.

Meanwhile, concern mounts on Madison Avenue as to how advertising rates will be affected once tens of millions of viewers can skip commercials altogether.

For any who have struggled to program a VCR, a DVR is a revelation. Instead of looking through a printed TV program and entering starting and ending times or obscure codes, viewers now can scroll through online TV listings and, with a single click, select a program to record.

Likewise, they can search through weeks of schedules for favorite TV shows from reruns to sporting events and record them automatically, no matter at what time or on which channel they are shown. And because the programs are stored on a hard drive, they're instantly available from a menu for viewing. Some units even have built-in software that skips commercials.

At Comcast, at least, the DVRs are being offered in tandem with On Demand, a service that allows digital cable subscribers to access a sort of "library" of favorite programs - no matter the time and without having recorded them.

"If Comcast, which is the biggest cable company in the country with 21 million customers, is pushing On Demand and DVRs this summer, it's because research is telling them that viewers will embrace it," said Douglas Gomery, professor of media economics at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"And that's big news in terms of how America will be watching TV in years to come."

Viewers, at least those with cable, seem eager to have more say in what and when they watch. Though Comcast recently began its DVR rollout, it has been offering On Demand services in parts of Maryland and Delaware for about 18 months. In that time, the percentage of subscribers using the service jumped 60 percent, according to Mark Watts, vice president for marketing at Comcast in the Maryland-Delaware region.

"It's all about convenience and control for the consumer," he said.

The appeal lies in how these services dovetail with major changes in American lifestyles, said Abe Novick, senior vice president at Baltimore-based Eisner Communications, which operates one of the most sophisticated television viewer research operations in the country.

"With two-parent households where each parent is working 50- or 60-hour weeks, there's just less time," he said. "All our research tells us the same thing: Consumers want things when they need them. You have to revolve around their schedule, or they just won't respond. The very term, `on demand,' says it all."

`On our schedule'

At the Hastings house in Elkridge, live television has gone the way of the dodo. Between Eric Hastings' career as a Web site designer, his wife's job in the health care industry and his daughter's school schedule, the Hastingses no longer have time to arrange life around a network programming schedule.

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