DVRs make live TV a matter of choice



The last time my wife and I watched a TV show together when it was actually being broadcast was the final episode of The West Wing on May 14. Before that, I'm not sure when we watched "live" television - maybe the NCAA finals, maybe the Super Bowl.

We can watch at our leisure because we pay Comcast an extra $10 a month for a set-top cable box with a digital video recorder (DVR). This is Comcast's version of TiVo - the best-known brand name in a market for a gadget that's finally rattling cages in the broadcast industry, almost seven years after it first appeared.

If you haven't tried one, a DVR is a special-purpose computer designed to record TV programs on a hard drive and play them back when you're ready to see them.

Sure, people have been doing this with videocassette recorders for a quarter of a century - only on a one- or two-show basis. DVRs make this time shifting easier and more convenient by orders of magnitude.

I've never understood why the public didn't glom onto DVRs faster, but it seems that sales and rentals of the devices are finally reaching a critical mass.

Nielsen Media Research, the longtime arbiter of TV ratings, estimated this year that DVRs are in 7 percent of the nation's television households. Some analysts expect the figure to hit 20 percent within a year. I wouldn't be surprised if that happened, now that cable companies are renting them cheaply.

Meanwhile, Microsoft and PC makers are pushing computers that run Windows Media Center Edition (MCE). This version of the operating system turns a PC equipped with a television tuner into a DVR - and acts as a middleman for all the video, music and photos stored on a home network.

Although the latest models have overcome the video quality problems that beset the first generation of MCE computers, I don't see PCs becoming primary sources of home TV reception.

Such computers are still too geeky and way too expensive compared with renting a box from a cable or satellite company.

But they're adding to the buzz, especially in college dorms where PCs are likely to be the main source of music, DVD video and broadcast TV entertainment.

To deal with this shift in TV tectonics, Nielsen now provides clients with three different sets of viewership ratings: people who watch a show when it's broadcast, people who record it on a DVR and watch it within 24 hours, and those who record and watch it within a week. That alone is enough to rattle broadcasters and advertisers - who want the data but don't quite know what to do with it.

Even more unsettling for those who grew up with quaint, 20th-century notions of broadcasting is that nobody knows how many of those delayed viewers avail themselves of the DVR's primo feature - the fast- forward button.

Yes, the button that lets you skip through commercials.

My wife has become amazingly good at it. Even with an occasional overrun, she can get us through the average one-hour show in 45 minutes or less. Okay, not everyone is as good as she is - but by some industry estimates, up to 80 percent of DVR watchers skip some commercials.

Strangely, the first DVR I reviewed four years ago - a ReplayTV from a now-defunct outfit called SonicBlue - required no remote control dexterity at all. Thanks to superb programming, it automatically sensed commercials and skipped over them with preternatural accuracy.

It seems suspicious that this extraordinary technology has disappeared from the DVR market today. Who is powerful enough to make this happen?

My bet is the automobile companies - they bought up the commercial-skipper and buried it with all those gadgets that will actually triple your gas mileage. That's how RCA buried TV for a decade in the 1930s so it wouldn't compete with radio.

Did I tell you I love conspiracy theories?

Getting back to reality, I predict that not everyone with a DVR will skip every commercial. That requires too much attention for casual viewing. Most of today's DVR enthusiasts are gadget-friendly. As DVRs make their way into the hands of those less technically skilled, their owners are less likely to take advantage of them.

Still, broadcasters and advertisers will have to make adjustments. Ad agencies may have to come up with better commercials - and broadcasters may have to package fewer of them with their shows.

CBS and America Online are attacking the problem with an online AOL series called Gold Rush, which is scheduled for the fall. It features $2 million in real treasure buried somewhere in the United States. Among the places that players will find clues are commercials that accompany CBS shows. Is $2 million enough bait to keep folks watching?

Meanwhile, Comcast customers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit for the past week have been able to watch two hot CBS episodes free of charge through Comcast's video-on-demand service - which typically charges for recent movies and new shows.

Survivor Finale and Survivor Reunion are entirely sponsored by General Motors - which is packaging modest (meaning short) commercials at the beginning, middle and end of each program. That's as opposed to the grueling assault of 15- and 30-second spots that eat up 20 minutes or more of typical shows.

If the commercials are well done and not intrusive, viewers may well be willing to watch them and lay off the fast-forward button. Sometimes it's actually a good idea to pause for a couple of minutes in the middle of a tense drama.

But there's no doubt that DVRs have changed the rules of the game - most likely in the viewer's favor.

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