Originally created 12/15/03

Digital video recorders making their moves on consumers

NEW YORK -- Our digital video recorder loves "The Simpsons."

At least it has taste. But the habit of continually recording Bart and Homer Simpson, on its own, is one of the little mysteries of the new machine in our family's life.

We joined the digital revolution this fall, purchasing a DVR built into a Direct TV satellite receiver, and are getting used to its wondrous applications - including the ones that terrify the television industry.

All indications are we have a lot of company. For several years, consumers were not embracing this technology as fast as many experts predicted, but now it seems to be exploding into public consciousness.

We're the first on our block with a DVR. But anytime I mentioned not having one to someone who works in television over the past couple of years, the look in their eyes made me feel I had sprouted green horns. I had to get with the program.

"Pause live TV!" The sales come-on never really registered, until the opportunity came to actually do it.

Our daughter starts crying about something her brother did, or the phone rings and, with the press of a button, "Friends" freezes in time. Joey and Rachel save their punch lines until we can give them our full attention.

That alone has done as much to promote peace in our household as a full night's sleep.

Recording programs is a snap - no need to fiddle with videotapes or program cumbersome VCRs.

New worlds have opened up. For instance, late-night TV had fallen off my radar, with two exhausting toddlers and a schedule that usually requires a pre-dawn wake-up. Jon Stewart's on a roll, fatherhood has agreed with David Letterman, Conan O'Brien is consistently funny - now I no longer have to take someone else's word for it. I try to make sure these shows will be recorded before turning out the light.

Now I even know why there's so much fuss over Tina Fey; she towers over anything else on "Saturday Night Live."

Even "Jeopardy," a guilty pleasure that always seemed to interfere with work, dinner or the kids' bath time, is a routine again. I watch when I want, not at 7 p.m.

My wife has discovered how to record a full season's worth of programs in an instant. Now, she can watch "Sex and the City" or one of those evil home design shows at her convenience.

"I'm in the programming seat now. I am the programmer. I can control my own destiny," gushed Robert Mercer, another recent convert. He averted an argument last week simply by recording HBO's "Angels in America" when his wife didn't want to see it.

Mercer works for Direct TV, and a couple of months ago took advantage of his company's special offer.

Direct TV is selling built-in TiVo receivers for less than $100 and says holiday supply has exceeded demand, causing a backlog of orders. TiVo, one of the industry's leaders, gained 209,000 subscriptions in the third quarter, a growth rate more than quadruple what it was during the same period last year.

A TiVo receiver is selling for about $50 less this holiday than it did last year, spokesman Scott Sutherland said.

An estimated 3 million DVRs are in use today, nearly double the 1.7 million out there a year ago, said Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research Inc. That's still only a fraction of the nation's 108 million TV homes.

Cable companies, led by Comcast and Time Warner, are beginning to offer DVRs in their receivers, he said. They're expected to become much more widely available in the next year or so; that's partly why Direct TV is aggressively marketing them this season, to milk a competitive advantage while it still exists.

"Cable is pushing it, satellite is pushing it, you can go into a store and buy it," Bernoff said. "That combination has helped make for some very impressive growth."

It's the television industry's nightmare come true.

TV executives are frightened that people will become addicted to the fast-forward button on their DVRs, and will much prefer taping their favorite shows so they can skip commercials.

I've done it. It's amazing how much faster "Jeopardy" races by when you skip the ads and Alex Trebek's small talk. It won't be at all surprising if the current trend toward product placement in series accelerates.

It only takes a few weeks for a DVR to markedly change television-viewing habits, even those ingrained for 40 years.

The machine's one oddity is having a mind of its own. My DVR surveys the television schedule and records programs that it believes I'll be interested in watching.

Presumably the machine senses the programs we watch to get an idea of our taste. But as much as I like "The Simpsons," we haven't tuned the series in on our own since the DVR was installed. Yet, dependably, episodes are taped for us.

Cable movies of all sorts have appeared in my queue and only once - for Adam Sandler's "Punch-Drunk Love" - have I been interested in what it saved.

If you're a network executive, though, think of the possibilities if you can force DVRs everywhere to record your pet shows. You can't force people to watch them, but it's one step closer.

Maybe then they'll learn to love DVRs like our family does.

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