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January 02, 2004

Life With a DVR

Dear Friedrich --

Yet another chapter in my ongoing (and apparently never-to-end) home-entertainment-system story.

A month ago, a cable guy stopped by and installed a new digital cable box. Groovy: some new channels, a few of them even worth paying a little attention to. But the real fun arrived inside the cable box -- a built-in DVR. The new cable box has, in other words, built-in Tivo-like functions. It's got a hard drive and the ability to program recording and playback. (You can read all about my precious new friend here.) A while back (here), you wrote about your pleasure in your own Tivo. I now better understand what you were raving about.

I've had a few minor complaints. The damn gizmo whirs -- all the time, 24/7, even when the TV isn't in use. Does your Tivo's hard drive spin all the time, or only when you're actively making use of it? The people at my cable company's Help desk haven't been of any help; evidently the world of DVRs is new to them too. This mouse-size dentist's-drill sound that's now a constant presence in our bedroom is most unwelcome. Someone -- and someone whose word will be taken heed of -- needs to gripe publicly about how annoying the noises are that computers make. Donald Norman and Walter Mossburg, are you listening?

Also, the hard drive's size -- which is limited to about 20 hours of recording -- seems 'way too small. How much programming does your Tivo hold? Happy to admit that I'm a media packrat who likes his shelf of options to be very full. Still: only 20 hours? I've already had to devise a make-do system. I'm only recording TV shows to the hard drive, while movies I still record to videocassette. If I didn't, the movies would gobble up all the hard drive space in no time.

But, generally speaking: bliss. The DVR strikes me as one of those transforming technological advances. Using it, I feel the way I did when I first used a computer with a graphical interface. Instantly the computer stopped being a chore I struggled with and became something I could have fun with. Playing with the DVR reminds me too of the first time I saw the Web; the Internet, which I'd been able to make next to no use of apart from email, opened itself up to me as a place where I might romp and enjoy myself.

As far as me-and-TV go, I'm probably a fairly typical American-bozo case. I grew up in the '50s and '60s reading books, listening to pop music, and watching TV, if not as much as many kids I knew. As a teen, I decided to break myself of the TV habit and did it cold turkey. I made the choice out of adolescent self-righteousness (commercialism sucks) and snobbery (film equals high-class, TV equals loserhood) as much as anything else, but I also did it to free up my mind and my imagination. That beaming, strobing box hypnotized and narcotized me, and I knew I had to kick the habit. Even today, when a TV is on, even in the background, I can't ignore it. I'd like to but I can't; my eyes keep drifting over to it and my mind keeps doing what it can to trance out.

I wanted to think my own thoughts, have my own experiences, and live life more on my own terms, so I shunned the tube almost entirely for about 15 years. When I did reintroduce myself to it, I did so very warily. I needed to remain in charge, and I devised a system meant to keep me in charge. I'd watch TV, but I'd never simply sit and see what was on. Instead, I'd rent movies and watch them at my convenience and for my own reasons. And when it came to actual TV programming, I'd never watch it live, at the time of its broadcast. Instead, I got in the habit of combing through the TV guides and programming the VCR to record the shows that interested me. Which means that, for the last 15 years or so, nearly all the TV I watched was on videocassette. A bit of a chore, but one that had the virtue of forcing me to choose deliberately what I wanted to see, and one that allowed me (and not some network programming exec) to dictate terms. Every now and then, I'd slip up. I'd turn the tube on to relieve the tedium of, say, flossing my teeth. And inevitably I'd revert. My eyes would glaze, my brain would give way, hours would pass. And when I'd pull myself together and drag myself to bed, I always felt as though my life was lying in defeated pieces around me.

So I've had an I'm-in-charge relationship with the TV for years; there's nothing new about that for me. What the DVR has made possible is a new degree of ease. A phenonomenal new degree of ease, really. I figured out how to navigate the programming guide and how to use the remote's commands and controls in about 30 minutes; given my dunderheadedness where tech things are concerned, that means most people could get up to speed in about five minutes. Within a couple of days I'd filled up the hard drive with programs I was eager to check out.

With a DVR, your TV setup morphs into a different creature than it's heretofor been. It's no longer something to be wary of, an extension of corporate America looking for an opportunity to enslave your mind, suck your brains, and eat your nervous system. It becomes instead an eager-to-please slave. "What can I do for you now?", it seems to be asking. And the TV universe itself morphs into something more like the Web than like a traditional TV schedule. It becomes an infinitely big Chinese menu from which you can order according to whim and interest. I've found it so enjoyable to surf the guide, set the programming, and watch what I've recorded that it's become even harder than usual to justify getting out of the house for the sake of entertainment. If using the TV gets any easier and any better than this, the only reason I'll have to leave the house is to earn the money it'll take to pay for my home entertainment.

A few quick reflections:

  • Tivo the company. Acquiring my DVR was a simple matter of calling the cable company and agreeing to pay an extra eight bucks or so a month. I didn't have to purchase a new box, and there was no need to thread a wire from the box to a phone line, Tivo-style. If all cable companies are going to offer such convenient DVR service, how is Tivo, the company that pioneered the concept, going to survive?

  • Ads. I don't use the setup to manipulate live TV -- I use it only to create a shelf full of programs I'm curious to watch. But I certainly fast-forward through all the ads. Why wouldn't I? Which makes me wonder: as more people get DVRs, what's going to become of TV ads? Ad people aren't dumb; they'll know if many people are skipping their ads. And if they cut back on placing TV ads, what will the networks do to pay for their for their shows? Here we DVR users sit, helping ourselves to programming that has cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to produce. Will the DVR kill the goose that laid the golden egg? I'm guessing that what will happen instead is that ad content will start being placed in the midst of the shows. Perhaps we'll start seeing scrolling strips of ads at the bottom of the screen; perhaps commercially-sponsored product placements will proliferate. Or perhaps, if ad revenues do plunge, programming itself will have to change and adapt to lower budgets.

  • Settlement patterns. These days, many people with strong cultural interests choose to live in or near a handful of big-city cultural centers. Will that change as broadband Web connections and DVRs multiply? The Web already makes much that's of interest available to just about every middleclass American; the DVR turns the tube into something like a Web browser for TV content. That's a lot of easily-accessed and substantial cultural content. As more of our interactions with culture become electronically mediated, it's going to become easier to live almost anywhere and still be able to access tons and tons of culture. How will this affect LA and New York, for instance? I wonder if many of the people who currently put up with the headaches of life in such cities for the sake of proximity to culture won't choose instead to settle elsewhere. Perhaps only the truly culture-committed (and the truly live-performance-committed) will remain. How will this affect the life of cultural centers?

  • Gatekeepers. The DVR seems to cut yet another support out from underneath traditional cultural gatekeepers. Amazon, the Web, DVRs, file-sharing (both music and video) ... Culture is turning into an overflowing, help-yourself-to-it economy. Editors, broadcasters, and producers are losing hold of this economy's reins, and they aren't likely to gain them back. On the one hand, this is great: so much becomes available. On the other: well, shucks, the gatekeepers did help filter and winnow our options. They may not have done it as well as they should have (and so, IMHO, good riddance on balance to many of them). But filtering and winnowing will still need to take place, at least for people who don't simply want to be tumbled about by an endlessly-self-replenishing cornucopia of glitz. How is this filtering going to occur? Perhaps via online discussions -- via Amazon reader reviews, for instance, or via the conversations that take place at cultureblogs.

But I've made a couple of New Year's blogging resolutions. The first was to keep each posting to one subject; the other was to keep each posting to a reasonable length. Here I am, fresh out of the 2004 gate, and I've already violated both resolutions. A real man of character, aren't I.

Eager in any case to hear more of your reflections about life with a DVR. Eager to hear what life with a DVR has been like for visitors too.



posted by Michael at January 2, 2004


Some of the questions you mention came up in the discussion surrounding the ReplayTV/Sonic Blue case. The large TV networks claimed then to have the copyright on the order their programs are broadcasted; including the commercials shown. ReplayTV's built in possibilities to skip the commercials was viewed as breaching that copyright.

But some advertizers - aware of the dangers presented - commented they would probably choose for more product placement within the TV programs if the personal DVR would become mainstream.

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 2, 2004 7:13 AM

"Settlement patterns" My heart is hopeful, my mind is wary. One - well this one - would think that faxes, email, teleconferencing, and netmeeting would have made business trips all but obsolete. Instead, with each innovation, business travel continues or even grows. People just like their damn face time.

Part of the reason might be that so much of business is selling/con jobs and you really need eye contact to pull that off.

Don't have DVR or Tivo and don't want it. If I feel like watching TV, I just watch what's on. What's on is usually sloppy news reporting or infomercials so I am really behind on my TV time.

Posted by: j.c. on January 2, 2004 12:26 PM


Don't knock DVR systems if you haven't tried them; it is a great and glorious thing to watch TV with no commercials.


I never quite remember how the Sonic Blue case came out, or even if it has resolved itself. Legally, I always thought the networks didn't have a leg to stand on; after all, they beam their programs into my house without asking permission. I have no written contract with them, and, really, no contractual nexus at all. How can they tell me what I can and cannot do with their signal? (If somebody sends unrequested merchandise to my house, it's my understanding I can do anything I like with it, including sell it.) But given the special-interest legislation media companies seem able to conjure out of Congress, I guess anything is possible.


I second everything you say about DVR systems. I would add that as a parent it also allows me to control what my two-year-old son sees; we record "parentally approved" shows for him and have them on tap day or night. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 2, 2004 1:37 PM

I never quite remember how the Sonic Blue case came out, or even if it has resolved itself.
As far as I know, Sonic Blue went bankrupt when the case wasn't solved yet - and the legal costs wouldn't have helped here. Replay TV got sold to another company, under the condition the possibility to skip commercials was abandoned in the DVRs.

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 2, 2004 8:54 PM

Mike, the DVR isn't really meant for permanent recording of programming, that's more the realm of VCRs or DVD recorders. A DVR is meant more for recording of shows and movies for viewing when you have the time. When you've seen the material you are then supposed to record over it. For that purpose 20 hours is more than adequate.

As DVR become more popular expect third party manufacturers to start providiing external storage, or cable TV/external storage device makers to form partnerships. But that will be some time in the future.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 3, 2004 6:16 AM

I need commericials! When I watch things on HBO (no commercial breaks) I overbeat batters, come this close to burning the clothes I'm ironing, cut the dogs nails too short... or type complete onsense in a comments section.

Posted by: j.c. on January 5, 2004 10:26 AM

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