DVRs and the End of (Prime) Time

DVR chart

"I really like this TV," my generally gadget-averse partner raves about the Dish Network/Google TV setup we recently installed. Actually, she isn't talking about the hardware but the software. "Buffy is on all the time." She has been trying to convince me for years that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was "the best TV show ever," and I still politely try to appreciate its charms form time to time. But between the Chiller and Logo channels (all powered by the Google TV search box) she can find Buffy almost 24/7 now. I had better learn to like it.

I tried suggesting that we DVR the series for her or just run through the seasons in order via NetFlix or Hulu. "That is no fun," she insists. "There is no serendipity to that. That is no way to watch TV." Which raised a serious question in my mind about whether there are natural limits to the emerging on-demand media culture we presume is marching inevitably onwards. But according to the latest research from Centris, about 37% of U.S. households now have DVRs, up from 23% just two years ago. Increasingly, the recorders are coming from the service providers (77%), who are in the best position to make the machines standard issue. But how much DVR recording and replaying actually is going on? Centris finds that for 41% of viewers the share of overall TV shows viewed by DVR is under 10%, with 17% not making use of time shifting at all.

It is a bit of conceit of mediaholic tech-whores like us that media consumption is moving inevitably, inexorably towards an on-demand, what-you-want-when-you-want-it new state. To be sure, Centric shows that 21% of DVR users are time-shifting a majority of their programming. But I have to wonder how much of the population actually moves into that zone over time. For my partner, DVRs screw with the time-space continuum. Like most of us raised on TV, she experiences the media environment in neat 30s and 60s. When we play back the DVR to the end of a recorded show and then pop back into live TV in the middle of another programming pod she squeals, "where are we?"

"This is live, that was the DVR."

"Ooh, I don't like this TV. It is too confusing." She actually got a little angry, as if I had just shifted the floor a bit on her rather than shifted a video stream. For her TV viewing habits (as background all day while she works) TV is a kind of timepiece. To watch or half-listen to the set becomes a live stream into which someone is plugged. There is a temporal flow. I admit I share some of this with TV rituals like watching the Letterman monologues or SNL. Seeing them at the first point of broadcast somehow still feels important.

None of which is to say that time-shifting won't continue to grow as an integral part of the new media experience. But we can't lose sight of the fact that media has been an environment, too, with larger functions than simple consumption of content. There are likely limits to our on-demand revolution and the anytime-anywhere ethos will not fully transform everything before it.

Some viewers, like my partner, will feel they may have lost more than they gained in a time-shifted world that removes one of television's core qualities. Of course if I really wanted to screw with her head I could hit the pause button on the live stream, resume, and them kick it back over to the live feed. There is a time-space head rush. But then I would be punished by watching wall-to-wall Buffy.

2 comments about "DVRs and the End of (Prime) Time ".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, January 12, 2011 at 2:27 p.m.

    My wife cancels out your partner. She is perfectly comfortable with DVRs, watching 2 shows simultaneously with both in a delayed buffer. But then we've had a TiVo since 2002. It take a while to love-it-can't-live-without-it.

  2. Marc Schcher from MSS consulting, January 12, 2011 at 2:52 p.m.

    Our Children are the future. My 11 year old twins have no concept of not being able to watch whatever they want whenever they want to on some device

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