Originally created 02/11/02

TV networks' nightmare is a dream appliance



NEW YORK -- If television network executives are steamed enough to sue, there must be something exquisitely subversive about the latest in digital video recorders.

ABC, CBS and NBC want the ReplayTV 4000 off the market and have taken its parent company SONICblue to court, contending the slim silver box violates their copyrights by letting users share shows over the Internet.

But the angst in network executive suites is really more about something else: These devices allow viewers to watch what they want when they want - and automatically bypass commercials.

And that means mayhem for the networks' business model.

I asked a guy on the train who works in television if he owned a TiVo or a ReplayTV.

"I've got enough distractions." he said.

That's missing the point. These devices don't distract. They distill, filter and free up time. They're like personal TV secretaries.

And this new one networks.

Unlike its predecessors or its newest TiVo competitor, the RTV4000 is Internet-ready - and SONICblue is already shipping them by the thousands.

I connected two units to our home Ethernet network. I recorded some shows on the den unit and watched one across the network in my office while the originating machine also recorded a second show to its hard drive.

But the piece de resistance in the RTV4000 is the COMMERCIAL ADVANCE feature. If it sounds like a Great Leap Forward, that's because it is. Multiple bounds, in fact.

The RTV4000 can be programmed to skip all commercials by default. Or you can do it manually with the remote. Careful not to bypass actual programming, it zaps most, but not all, advertising segments.

SONICblue also sells Go-Video dual-deck VCRs that will strip commercials from a tape that you dub. So there's a strategy here.

Installation of the RTV4000 is a cinch, provided your home network, like mine, is behind a secure router and has a high-speed dedicated Internet connection (DSL, cable, T1 or ISDN).

If your network has dynamic Internet addressing, good. If you have to manually enter an Internet address it's more complicated.

But the setup routine is still easy enough. The digital recorder does most of the work. You give SONICblue your ZIP code and it goes on the Internet and finds your cable TV program guide, which is updated daily.

Each RTV4000 has a unique identifier so you can use the Internet to share a show with up to 15 friends who also have units. SONICblue says the built-in software prevents the transfer of pay-per-view broadcasts and that shows received cannot be forwarded to a third person.

To test the RTV4000's Internet capabilities, I successfully swapped shows with SONICblue. Transmission speeds will depend on your broadband connection.

Over the Internet, I was able to communicate with my RTV4000 in another fashion in a transaction that defined digital cool.

I logged on to www.myreplaytv.com, where I had registered my unit and set up a login and username. Then I queued up a show on my RTV4000.

The following morning, the device was programmed to record. It had been updated before dawn.

So what's the price for all this convenience?

The cheapest model, offering up to 40 hours of recording, costs $699. For 320 hours worth, the price is $1999. The company says one-third of customers have bought two units. Those folks must have weathered the recession well.

SONICblue says it intends to release a mass-market model the second half of this year. Its main competitor, TiVo, introduced last month a 40-hour unit for $299.

The TiVo devices don't do Internet. But they do include USB ports for plugging in digital cameras, MP3 players and the like.

The RTV4000 lacks USB support but does include software for uploading digital photos from a PC on your network, which I did, creating a screensaver slide show on the den TV.

To the question of what price all this convenience, there is a second answer. Both TiVo and SONICblue use these devices intrusively, gathering intelligence on viewing patterns and preferences.

In its privacy policy, SONICblue says it "collects certain anonymous viewing data, such as which programs you record, which features you use, and other similar data."

Viewers cannot opt out. The company says the data "is used to tailor the ReplayTV service to your preferences, including providing you with advertisements that may be of interest to you ..."

SONICblue says it does not link any of that data to your personal information.

But a snatch of ominous language in the privacy policy gave me pause: "From time to time we may also share personal information with third parties who perform certain services and functions on our behalf."

Personally, I'm not bothered about having my viewing habits known. If it helps get "Fear Factor" off the air and brings me more Ken Burns' documentaries and Bill Moyers' shows, I'll happily oblige.

Frank Bajak can be reached at techeditor@ap.org