Saturday, January 06, 2001

Must-See TV

While the programming that appears on television has evolved at a torrid pace, the same cannot be said for the technology of the box itself. In fact, there are so few mileposts that they can easily be counted on one hand. There's black and white, then color. Certainly, the advent of cable was a major turning point. And the invention and popularization of the VHS videocassette has to rank near the top. But after that? Well, we're still waiting for high definition, smell-o-vision, interactive, teletext... the list goes on.

While only time will tell if it makes the aforementioned list, the latest and greatest example of technological progress to tickle the fancy of gadgeteers is starting to make the rounds. It has the potential to be as significant an advance as any of the top five, not so much because of the technology involved, but for its economic implication. That's because for the first time, the new digital video recorders, or DVR's, have the ability to truly zap the commercials.

Sold under two competing standards by Tivo and ReplayTV, the boxes are basically large computer disks that enable the user to record what's on the tube and watch them at their leisure. But where the new boxes differ from your garden-variety videocassette recorder is in their ability to call out on a phone line at night, and download a schedule of the what's going to be broadcast over the next several days. This is then presented to the viewer to select which shows should be recorded for later viewing.

Now, by itself, this is a "nice to have," but not a "need to have" convenience... no killer ap here. Certainly compared to your existing VCR, it's easier, but not revolutionary. But because of the technology in use, two additional benefits exist. First, skipping ahead 30 or 60 seconds at 60 times speed is a snap. Also, if you're watching a show "live," you can pause it at any time, then resume viewing the show a few minutes later and skip over the commercials as you get to them. Net net, you get all meat, and no filler.

To the viewing public, this might truly seem like manna from heaven. But to the denizens of Madison Avenue, it is more like the devil incarnate. After all, the ads pay the bills. And if people can watch TV without watching the commercials, who will pick up the tab? Or as one studio executive laments, "we're the only industry in the world who has figured out a way to get rid of revenue streams, rather than create them."

But where there's a will there's a way. Or more specifically, where there's money involved, there's an angle. And so, enter Rupert Murdoch, the Australian broadcaster who is a media force on at least 4 continents.

Murdoch's BskyB is a prominent satellite broadcaster in the UK. As part of their XTV interactive offering, they are offering Replay or Tivo-like set top boxes to subscribers capable of storing 15 hours of programming. However, unlike the their US counterparts, there's a slight difference: an advertiser can pay Murdoch to thwart your ability to skip over the commercials, or more exactly, to disable your fast forward button while their ad is on.

While the exact details are still being worked out, there are bound to be a number of schemes. In one, an advertiser might pay a premium so that the system would skip all ads but his. In another approach, the viewer might be hit with a service charge that would enable them to skip the commercials, or allowed to watch for "free" if they are willing to plow through them. Either way, it means that viewers are liable end up with sprained thumbs as they mash the FF button trying to skip to the good stuff.

While the US might lag behind in this particular race for the hearts, minds, and eyeballs of the viewing public, it is actually a step ahead in a similar competition taking place for your ears. Working the audio side of the ledger rather than the video, some 300 Mobil, BP, Shell Sunoco and Total gas stations in California, Florida, Michigan and Texas are participating in the pilot test. At these locations, while you pump gas, the ad folks are busy pumping up the volume. Except you can forget MTV and VH1: it's time for the Pump Radio Network.

For the 120 seconds that you are standing there filling your tank with regular, you get bombarded with ads and music. You can turn the level down, but not off. You would think that since you're already paying for the gas, they could spare your ears. But it is not to be: whether you like it or not, another DMZ has just been breached.

These two examples reinforce the perception that there is little in the world that can't be commercialized. We see ads on billboards, in print, on clothing, in product placement in movies. Stadiums are named after corporations, golf tournaments are sponsored by drug companies. It's gotten so that even the commercials themselves are sponsored by other advertisers: on the "Imus in the Morning" radio program, ads for Don's clothing company with his brother, the Auto Body Express, are sponsored by Nike and others. They say that the air is free, but mark my's only a matter of time before someone figures that one out, too.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is looking for a sponsor for this column. Interested? If so, your banner can run regularly on the masthead in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer... publisher permitting, of course.

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