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The TiVo Revolution

The TiVo revolution of personal video recording has your TV thinking for you
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

I grew up in a house filled with books, magazines and newspapers, but only one publication caused near-panic when it was misplaced -- TV Guide. After all, watching TV was hard work. You had to synchronize your schedule to the broadcasters' whims. Take your eye off the ball even briefly and -- whoosh -- no "Laverne and Shirley" for you this week.

When VCRs were introduced in 1975 (ah, Betamax, we hardly knew ye), the tyranny of the TV was loosened a notch. Now we could time-shift, recording programs while we were unavailable or unconscious and watching them at our leisure. Great concept, but lacking something in the ease-of-use department. Yes, you can learn to program a VCR by spending maybe 10 minutes with the manual, but that's 9.5 minutes more than most users will invest. Besides, you still have to figure out what you want to record, work your way through a set of complicated menus, and make sure there's a tape in the machine…it's just easier to watch whatever "Laverne and Shirley" rerun happens to be on Nick at Nite.

In 1999, a new product arrived: the personal video recorder (PVR), a device that offers all the promise of time shifting and unprecedented control over the TV viewing experience. If you're watching a show and the phone rings, just hit one button and the program pauses -- when you get back to the couch, hit that button again and the show picks up right where you left off. Couldn't understand a line of dialogue? Missed a key play? Just rewind the live show you're watching and pay more attention this time. You can even watch in slow motion, if you like.

As for recording, you get a neatly arrayed program guide right on your TV screen -- just point to the name of the show you want to record, press a button, and it's done. Or set the PVR to record your favorite show every time it's on - you'll never miss "The West Wing" again. You can even search for upcoming programs that interest you, based on the program name or description, and have the PVR compile a library of personalized TV for you, ready for playback whenever you choose.

Those are the basic functions -- we'll see even more bells and whistles momentarily. But given the panoply of wonderfulness I've already described, it's worth stopping right here to ask a key question: why don't more people own one of these magical devices already? Everybody you know has a VCR, and probably most have DVD players, too, at this point. But how many of your friends and neighbors have a TiVo, ReplayTV or Ultimate TV system? That's what I thought.

One barrier to mass-market acceptance is certainly price. With VCRs selling at grocery stores for under $100, the idea of spending $300 or more for a TV recorder is a tough sell. Worse, many demand additional monthly fees for the required program listing service. As a veteran PVR user, I'm convinced the more significant hurdle is simple confusion -- the guys who make these devices have done a terrible job of explaining what they do and how they do it. Remember those TiVo commercials where they threw a TV network executive out his office window -- what the heck was that all about?

But when my friends visit and see what my favorite TV toy can do, they quickly become converts, if not purchasers (it's a cheap crowd). So let me answer the questions my friends ask here, for you, and you'll know enough to make an informed decision one way or the other.

What's this thing called exactly?

Every manufacturer seems to have a different way to identify its particular box. I've seen personal video recorder, personal television, digital video recorder, digital network recorder and smart TV, to name a few. At this point I mostly hear people use the brand names TiVo, ReplayTV, UltimateTV or DishTV when referring to these systems.

Who are these guys?

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