net.wars: Remote control

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 19 November 2004

This week's column was going to be about how I became a criminal using the Internet, but then TiVo announced plans to ensure that fast-forwarding viewers will still see ads, and you know, that's worse. We're seeing the beginnings of a complete shift away from viewer control. The TiVo is just the beginning.

Wendy M Grossman

First, to explain what a TiVo is - I know it's a verb in the US, but in the UK its availability was short and lamented because Thompson, the company's hardware partner, pulled out after a year or so.

The TiVo was the first of the class of devices known as PVRs, for "personal video recorder" - a hard drive in a box with a simple interface that lets you record TV shows at the press of a button. The killer feature about a TiVo is not the one TiVo's UK marketing department focused on, "Pause live TV!" The killer app is that you no longer need to know when or what channel anything is on. You tell the TiVo, "Get Letterman", and it records the show automatically. (It may sound silly to American readers that you'd have to TiVo Letterman, but ITV2 jumps him all around late night.)

This is why TiVo and the spread of PVRs (Microsoft's Media Centre has similar functionality) is such a threat to broadcast television: the channel no longer matters. TiVo owners pay for the listing service, either monthly or via a "lifetime" fee, and that's where the company makes its money.

Made its money. As time has gone on, TiVo is changing away from the company that wowed users so much that while voiding their warranties by installing bigger hard drives and network cards, they reminded each other not to do anything to hurt it.

To keep the listings updated, TiVo phones home every night, and because the machine knows what it's recorded and what its owner has watched, the machine has a lot of valuable, specific data it can transmit back. Users teach their TiVos their preferences by using one to three thumbs up or down to rate programs. This information feeds into a function that suggests other programs you might like. Last year, TiVo began aggregating this data and publishing user ratings for US, and by February Nielsen, the dean of traditional paper diary TV ratings, had entered into a deal to analyze TiVo's data to understand how its one million viewers use time-shifting.

The thing that made people love the TiVo in such a cultish way is that they felt they were in control of their televisions. In the UK, of course, development has stagnated. But in the US, the box sprouted a 30-second skip feature allowing viewers to fast-forward past the ads. It's this feature that this week's news informs us TiVo is going to kill. The ads viewers fast-forward through are to be replaced by a banner

Advertisers will be allowed to buy this service, and you can easily see why the company might like to profit from it. There are two categories of people who are going to be really unhappy: broadcasters and consumers. Broadcasters surely have known for decades that there is a lot of fuzziness built into the Nielsen ratings, but if anything that fuzziness has helped them. Let's pretend, they might all be saying, that all of those households watch the ads. That made sense before VCRs, but it hasn't made sense for a long time now. Consumers, who buy VCRs that automatically edit out ads or TiVos with their very efficient fast forwarding, are going to hate it even more.

Meantime, US broadcasters are gearing up to take advantage of the broadcast flag, which becomes operative next summer. HBO, for example, intends to restrict viewing its programs to a single device and bar all copying. TiVo, too, is going to patch its machines so they honour Macrovision copy protection

There are two problems here that TiVo's changes are highlighting. The first is that the volume of ads is now at the point where for many consumers it's intolerable. TiVo's announcement is just the beginning of what I'm sure will be many new forms of advertising. Already, the head of ITV has told the trade press he wants to put advertisers' logos on screen during programs. Interactive television will probably allow sports and other live events to become live-action shopping malls. Click on Venus Williams to buy her tasteful one-piece bathing suit - er, I mean, her tennis dress. Push this button for a list of all the sponsored products currently on your screen. Music in bars? Probably will be supplied under contract by a company that makes a living by downloading copies of what's "now playing" onto your mobile phone or MP3 player. With wearable computers figure people will wear video display clothing. This is going to be an arms race as bad as the spam wars.

The second problem is more subtle. Today's interactive recording boxes can be reprogrammed by their owners - the cable companies, TiVo, Sky. You owned a VCR, and the functionality you bought was specified on the tin. You don't own a TiVo, and the functionality you pay for may be withdrawn at any time.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).