If you have trouble setting your VCR to tape a program while you're out of the house, you're not alone. Research has shown that most people don't even use the "time-shifting" capability of their videocassette recorders. They're content simply to rent tapes or, if recording from TV, to do it while the show is on.
"Time-shifting is the No. 1 glitch people have with their VCRs," said Tom Hitzges, a marketing executive with Panasonic, which came up with the most dramatic solution yet to that problem: bar-code programming.
Panasonic--not its Japanese parent company, Matsushita--developed and first marketed bar-code programming in 1987. Now the system is beginning to show up on VCRs made by other companies, such as Magnavox and Canon. (These and other companies also offer another programming system called "on-screen display," which walks the viewer through the process with on-screen instructions.)
And now New Jersey-based Panasonic has persuaded ABC to run bar codes at the bottom of some of the network's TV Guide ads in November.
Panasonic has been able to get several cable guides to run at least some bar-coding over the past year, but this is the first time a network has agreed to include those little series of vertical lines--similar to the ones on supermarket products--in network advertisements.
Why has ABC consented to play along? Mark Zakarin, vice president for marketing at ABC Entertainment, said the network views it as a no-risk experiment.
"Research has shown that most time-shifting is done for network shows," he said. "This trial program gives ABC a little advantage with the time-shifter."
And if the trial doesn't get any results, no skin off ABC's nose--it has to run ads anyway, and bar codes take up little space.
ABC isn't expecting much anyway, Zakarin said, since Panasonic has estimated that only about 800,000 homes will have bar-code VCRs by November. "It's not going to make a big difference in the numbers (the Nielsen ratings); we're not fooling ourselves about that," he said. "But if just a few Nielsen families time-shift our shows because it's easier with the bar codes, that may give us the little margin we're looking for."
Panasonic, which hopes the ads will publicize the technology and boost sales, approached ABC through the advertising agency they share, Grey, proposing to pay the network an undisclosed fee for its cooperation. The two firms have a one-year agreement that is exclusive for ABC among the networks.
ABC hasn't determined exactly which week in November the "selected" ads will start carrying bar codes--or how long the ads will run with bar codes. But, Zakarin said, "it will be for more than one week." Nor is he sure what shows will be featured, though they'll be "the ones we feel will appeal most to busy people with VCRs who might not see the show unless they time-shift." A likely candidate, he said, is "thirtysomething."
So what's the advantage to bar-code programming?
"It's been one of the major steps in helping consumers use consumer electronics," said Cynthia Saraniti, spokeswoman for the Electronic Industries Assn. At the association's most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, she noted, "a main theme was manufacturers making their products easier to use. Bar-code programming is one way--and we can expect to see a lot more."
"When VCR customers are shown bar-code programming by a dealer, their eyes just light up," Panasonic's Hitzges said. "After years of bar codes at the supermarket, people are comfortable with them. Especially after they see how easy it is to program their VCRs this way."
Right now, only certain $400-and-up VCRs have bar-code programming. They come equipped with a bar-code scanner (or "wand" or "pen") and a laminated sheet of bar codes. You press a button on the wand, which lights its tip. You run the tip over a bar code to set the start time, another to set the stop time and another for the channel. The wand beeps every time it's received the proper information. Then you aim it at your VCR and press a button to transfer the information to the machine. That's it.
With the ABC ad, the process will be even simpler. All of the needed bar codes will be in a row, so that one sweep of the wand will suffice.
Does Zakarin expect other networks to follow ABC's lead?
"It's a very imitative business, and if it's deemed that bar codes make even a quarter-point rating difference, you can bet everybody else will be doing what we're doing as soon as they're able to," he said.