Release the Hounds! Final Thoughts on PVRs

Last week's column really got the hackles up on some of my fair readers. Let it be known to those of you who are not aware: stand in the way of TiVo hype at your own risk!

Seriously, though, much of the response was even and thoughtful, even if a bit rife with fanaticism. A number of respondents seemed to see my position on TiVo and the PVR phenomenon - if it can rightly be called that just yet - as one of doubt in its future pervasion of our homes and its ability to take hold of the avid television viewer's life.

I want to set the record straight and say that I do think TiVo and its ilk will have a profound impact on how people engage televised content. I think that if PVRs are successfully installed into the myriad digital cable set top boxes that will eventually make their way into nearly everyone's home, we are going to see dramatic changes in how people watch television and what we are going to learn about how people use television.

But I do not think that the kind of revolution is going to take place that is being prognosticated by those who currently have the product in their homes, or by networks and agencies afraid of what it will do to their bread and butter. Understand that revolutions are rare. Very rare. And they often eat their young.



Price point, perceived complexity, and box overload, among other things, are going to be obstacles to the realization of a future where everyone sits in their homes happily zapping commercials. Realize that only about 70% of US Households have any cable at all. According to the Yankee Group, at the end of 2002, digital cable was only reaching 18.9 million homes. That same report indicated that digital cable was going to slow to only about 4 million net additions a year. Now, this is not insignificant, but it is not a high enough installed base to yield a revolution. It is, however, enough upon with to base a view of evolution.

To base a vision of the near future of television viewing on what a relatively small group of upscale, early adopter, techno-savvy households is disingenuous. I will again point to my sister as a foil. She is a mother of 3 with a high school education and a husband who works 12 hours a day. They are a time-starved family that could benefit from some "time-shifting." Sometimes they have cable; sometimes they don't, all depending on cash-flow. A $600 price of entry is simply too high. Fear of the technology, whether it is easy or not for the early-adopter to manipulate, and a kind of laziness standing in the way of figuring it out, will present a barrier. To say that PVRs' future ubiquity by virtue of their inclusion in digital cable set top boxes assumes the ubiquity of digital cable set top boxes. It's like predicting how much gas people will consume when most of them still don't own cars.

Other thoughts...


A lot of respondents talked about this as the real killer-app of the PVR. I like the term because it sounds so... "Magical" and yet scientific. "We were able to initiate time-shifting once the transflux capacitor was repaired." The priests of the industry maintain power by preserving the mystery of simple concepts. Time does not really shift. A PVR records a program and allows one to watch that programming at a later time. PVRs do not give one control over live television. If you think you are ad skipping through live TV, you do not understand how the time-space continuum works. Ad skipping requires programming to first be recorded. Yes, you can start recording a program and begin watching that recorded program some 8 minutes later and by virtue of ad skipping, stop watching that program pretty much the same time as a non-PVR enabled audience member. Curious to know just how much of that will be going on in the average American's home.

Fear and Laziness

I was accused of not understanding much about human behavior by calling out these two states of being as root causes for action or lack of it. I call to your attention the following:

  • Fear: Campaigns since the beginning of electoral politics, jingoism, isolationism, war, pepper spray, home security systems, The Club, racism, P.T. Barnum marching elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge, the Patriot Act, car alarms, confiscated fingernail clippers, firewalls, paper shredders...
  • Laziness: voter turn out, microwaves, fast food, frozen dinners, remote controls, phone book memory features, 7-11, Cliff Notes, Go-Gurt, plagiarism... Someone mentioned laziness and convenience are not synonymous. I agree. Laziness is a rash, convenience is the salve.

    When all is said and done, the fretting over what TiVo is going to do to television viewing habits and how that is going to impact the television advertising industry is to worry about the wrong thing.

    The question raised by TiVo is not what to do about television. The question is what to do about marketing? It is the pervasiveness of advertising messages in the individual human life that is going to have more to do with a person's relationship with television commercials than it is their love of PVRs. We are subconsciously training ourselves to overlook the plethora of ad messages we encounter daily. Some we make conscious efforts to avoid. But those ads we like, we engage. Some people will tear out a great print ad and frame it. If the image or message is interesting, some pick up MaxRacks cards. And even the ad skipping TiVo set has been found to watch ads they find to be interesting or entertaining.

    We need to ask ourselves harder questions about the human being's involvement with marketing and its methods than we need to be worrying about PVRs. If more focus was placed on that, advertising would be saved and TiVo would be nothing to fear.

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