I didn’t realize it, but for years someone has been controlling a large portion of my leisure time: the nameless network executives who create the television schedule.
I’ve never thought of myself as someone who watches a lot of TV, particularly compared to the average viewing time of 19 to 32 hours per week (culled from U.S., Canadian and Japanese sources). Nevertheless, a portion of my brain was dedicated to keeping track of the shows I like, when they air, and on what channel. If I wasn’t able to watch them live, I had to program the VCR, supply a tape of sufficient length, and track what program was on which tape. The program schedule presented obstacles to overcome in my personal schedule: Am I going to be home? Is a tape in the VCR? When should I have dinner? Do I have time to do laundry and call my mother? For friends with young children, their problem is worsened by a six month-old who insists on being walked around the house during The West Wing and a three year-old who isn’t interested in watching Sesame Street in the early morning – he asks for it when the only programming to be found is the likes of Jerry Springer or The Young and the Restless. Add in the perennial perception of 57 channels and nothing on, and it becomes apparent that the network-controlled television schedule doesn’t meet many folks’ needs: it requires us to schedule our lives around the television instead of the television providing the content we want when we want it.
Enter the Personal Video Recorder — Relatively new to the consumer electronics scene, Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) are sometimes described as souped-up VCRs that have memorized the television schedule. A PVR knows the programming schedule of all the channels you receive. Based on your instructions, it records programs to an internal hard disk for later playback. Freed from tape’s linear medium, the PVR brings new functionality to the television experience. You can pause, rewind, fast-forward, or watch in slow-motion any program, live or pre-recorded. If 60 Minutes started fifteen minutes ago, you can start watching it from the beginning, while the PVR records the remaining portion; fast-forward through the commercials as you go, and you’ll watch Andy Rooney from the live broadcast. You can watch The Sopranos from last night while simultaneously recording tonight’s Ally McBeal. And finding a recorded program is merely a matter of picking a show from a list, rather than sorting through poorly labeled tapes and fast-forwarding to the right point in the tape.
The first entrants to the market were TiVo and ReplayTV, in 1999. Each company provides the device’s software, as well as a service that updates the built-in program guide. The hardware units are manufactured and sold through established hardware partners – Sony, Philips, and Hughes sell TiVo units, while ReplayTV’s service is sold on Panasonic hardware. More recent entrants include Microsoft’s UltimateTV (sold by Sony and RCA) and the Dish Network’s DishPVR 501.
Welcome to the TiVolution — The first TiVo I saw belonged to a friend, a die-hard home theater addict and eternal first-adopter. To be honest, his initial descriptions and zeal left me wondering the extent of his laziness ("you never have to change the tape!"). When I saw it in action, however, I began to understand its appeal. The capability to pause live television (to answer the phone or nature’s call) showed immediate usefulness – just press Play and pick up where you left off. The capability to rewind a few seconds of a live show to replay muddled dialog immediately removed an element of television’s frustrations. The playlist of recorded programs, immediately available and composed of programs my friend already likes, showed that good television does exist, but not necessarily when you feel like watching. Finding a TiVo at an August 2000 clearance special at Circuit City sealed the deal for me – my recorder, holding up to 14 hours of shows, was only $99 after rebates.
Upon opening the box I was greeted by a foldout placard showing the steps for hooking the recorder into my TV and stereo. Accustomed to the PC industry’s philosophy of little to no documentation and a la carte accessories, I was pleased to find a complete user manual and more than enough cables for plugging in the recorder. The setup process involved attaching it to the television and signal feed (antenna, analog or digital cable, or satellite – it works with all three and lets you combine up to two) and running through a series of setup screens.
First you identify your ZIP code, then the recorder uses its built-in 33.6 Kbps modem to download lists of local phone numbers and your local television providers. Another call downloads fourteen days of program guide information (courtesy of Tribune Media Services) to match your chosen television provider and channel package. Next, the recorder decompresses and indexes the guide data. Once this process is complete, your television is TiVo-enabled.
57 Channels, Surely Something’s On — The TiVo on-screen user interface offers two menu options for watching programs (Now Playing, Watch Live TV), three for selecting programs to record later (TiVolution Magazine, Network Showcases, Pick Programs to Record) and one for system preferences (Messages and Setup).
Now Playing is the chronologically sorted playlist of recorded programs (each with a short description, categories, and channel information). You can watch any program in Now Playing, even if the unit is currently recording something else, and you can also delete shows from Now Playing to free up space on the hard disk for more shows. (The recorder also automatically deletes old shows when space is needed.) Watch Live TV shows whatever is on television right now. Press the Live TV Guide button on the remote control to scan through the TiVo’s program guide for a program that’s currently airing.
To select programs for later recording, TiVolution Magazine and Network Showcases aggregate everything on television into categories. The former is supplied by TiVo, providing five categories for browsing according to genre and program type: TiVo’s Spotlight, Kids’ Stuff, Movie Marquee, Sports Arena, and Lifestyle. Network Showcases contains network-specific lists of programs, for which the networks pay TiVo to be listed. Both are potentially useful only if you have cable or satellite TV – if you pull signals in over an antenna, they’re a tease for channels you don’t receive.
Pick Programs to Record offers three methods for more exact program selection: Search By Title, Search Using Wishlists, and TiVo’s Suggestions. Search By Title uses type-ahead alphabetical listings which are updated as you select letters from an on-screen alphabet. To find Buffy the Vampire Slayer, enter "BU" and the program list instantly scrolls down to show items beginning with "BU." When I tried this, "Buffy" was listed six or so items down, after the 1947 Abbott and Costello movie Buck Privates Come Home and Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. (Hey, I like Abbott and Costello! The movie airs eight days hence at 3:00 AM on AMC, but no matter – I selected "Record This Showing" to add it to my TiVo’s To Do List.) Search Using Wishlists allows you to define search sets and automatically record matching programs. For example, a Director Wishlist might comb out Alfred Hitchcock movies, while an Actor Wishlist coupled with a category ("Eastwood, Clint" and "Western") conveniently omits his Dirty Harry material. Keyword Wishlists match any text in the program’s description.
TiVo’s Suggestions lists programs that TiVo thinks you might like, based upon your previous program selections and preference indications. (The remote control has buttons for Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down ratings. The more you use them, the more accurate the suggestions.) Do you like the movie Cool Hand Luke? Give it up to three thumbs-up ratings and TiVo might suggest Hud because it thinks you’ll like that, too. By default TiVo will automatically record program suggestions, based on available disk space. This function can be turned off, but for me it’s a big part of the TiVo experience. One morning I awoke to discover that it had recorded Casablanca late at night on a channel I didn’t know I received. (TiVo, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.)
Once you’ve found a program you want to record, selecting Record This Showing adds it to the To Do List. If you want to watch a database programmer’s eyebrows shoot up, select View Upcoming Episodes to see a list of future showings. Say you would like to record South Park, but your wife already watches Law & Order – both air at 10 PM on Wednesdays. Since Comedy Central repeats South Park several times during the week, choose View Upcoming Episodes and record another listed showing.
TiVo’s Season Pass removes the need to know when things change – such as when a show changes to a new night, runs a two-hour cliffhanger or a bonus episode later in the week. When you tell TiVo to record a Season Pass of Frasier on NBC, its database records Frasier on NBC – not channel 4 from 9:00 to 9:30 PM every Tuesday. If the network moves the show (again) to another night or time, the recorder notices the change in its nightly guide download and silently updates its To Do List. You can tailor a Season Pass to record only new episodes, retain a maximum number of episodes at a time, pad the recording by a few minutes in case of overtime, use a particular video quality, or specify how long you want to keep an episode in Now Playing.
Pricing and Availability — Stand-alone TiVo recorders are available from Sony and Philips in recording capacities of 20, 30 and 60 hours; prices range from $199 to $599. DirecTV-integrated units are available from Sony, Philips, and Hughes, recording up to 35 hours; prices range from $299 (after rebate) to $399. All units require the user to purchase the accompanying TiVo service, which provides program guide updates and software upgrades. The service is either $10 per month or $250 for the lifetime of the recorder. Recorders can be purchased at several retailers, including 800.com, Amazon.com, Best Buy, Circuit City, Good Guys and Outpost.com, and it’s well worth checking a price comparison service like DealTime or mySimon.
In the next installment of this article, I’ll delve deeper into how TiVo works, how a vibrant community has grown up around hacking it, and how it has freed me from television’s tyranny.
[Having chosen a career in computing, Andrew Laurence is the black sheep in a family of writers. Evidence to the contrary, he doesn’t watch all that much TV. Really.]