Tales of Technology
Sunday, August 10, 2003
So it's natural that I can't fathom why so few people own TiVos. I've asked many people why they didn't, and their answers taught me about consumers, advertisers and their tricks.
Here, in order of frequency, are the answers I got along with my snappy comebacks:
"What's a TiVo?"
It's a box that hooks up to your TV just like a VCR. But it uses a computer disk rather than tapes. As a result, it can store 30 to 300 hours of programs without your touching it. TiVo also contains a fully functional computer so you can give it general instructions such as "Record every program that John Cleese appears in." It actually records whatever is coming over the cable whether you ask it to or not, so if you happen upon a good program in the middle, you can back up to its beginning. You can also pause or fast forward through commercials or anything else. You can make football move at the pace of soccer by skipping huddles.
"I don't watch television."
Don't lie to me.
"I can't even program a VCR."
Don't feel badly. Japanese adults can't do it either. The TiVo is much easier. It takes a little futzing to get it working, but the difficulties we have with VCRs --misprogramming, running out of tape, etc. -- are gone. The key is that the TiVo knows everything about the TV schedules, so all you have to do is point and click at a program to record it.
"It's too expensive."
A TiVo costs $200 plus $10 a month. It's even cheaper and easier to install if you buy it as part of a cable or satellite box.
"TiVos will soon be illegal."
Because you can skip commercials so easily, the established content providers and distributors hate it. A similar product, Replay TV, was sued to death because it made commercial skipping and file-sharing too easy. A little-known fact is that the VCR survived a legal challenge by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.
Now with all that being said, here's what I have learned in my time as an unpaid TiVo evangelist:
TiVo is a little too expensive and tricky. Any new consumer electronic product should cost less than $100 and take less than an hour to master. Ford claimed that you could master the Model-T in an hour.
Even a better mousetrap needs a lot of selling. The TiVo company is probably run by engineers and hasn't done enough selling. They had some cute commercials like the one about a guy who puts a football game on pause while he prays for his team to win. But they went too far in the one in which a TV network executive is defenestrated -- that is, thrown out the window. It, understandably, was yanked by the network.
What really fascinates me about the TiVo people, however, is their view of television's future as described in Michael Lewis' excellent book, "Next". They see television as changing to become a lot more like magazines, giving much more control to the viewers. You will be able to avoid commercials, skip boring parts and browse for things.
Advertisers seem to be in an arms race with the consumers. The printing press, the broadcast channel and the mailing list are the weapons of the advertisers, while TiVo, caller ID and the telephone answering machine are the weapons of the consumers.
I believe that, unlike a real arms race, this one is more like the battle between the sexes: the advertisers want to attract and seduce while the consumers want peace and quality information. The advertisers want to spread their message widely with the minimum investment while the consumers are searching for a few useful things to invest in.
So this is about matchmaking, and TiVo wants to be your dating service. In return for freeing you from unwanted commercials, they want you to reveal your interests by what you watch. Think second-by-second Nielsen ratings. For example, TiVo recently reported that many more of its users replayed the Brittany Spears Pepsi commercials during the Super Bowl than they replayed actual football plays.
A few people are spooked by the notion that anyone would be following their viewing habits in order to target advertising better. But if watching "Sex in the City" will get me a free Victoria's Secret catalog, I say, "Bring it on!"