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New Systems Make It Easier to Program VCR

November 16, 1990|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Programming a video cassette recorder to tape TV shows automatically for viewing later is one of the joys of owning a VCR. But it's a joy that many VCR owners never experience: Studies show most people don't know how to do it.

In the last few months, three systems have been announced that aim to solve this problem.

The first to hit the market is a remote-control device, VCR Plus, now available at most major consumer electronics outlets for about $60. It is the first product to be marketed by Pasadena-based Gemstar Development Corp.

Here's how VCR Plus works.

The consumer punches in a code number--generally five digits--of the show to be recorded. The code numbers will be printed in certain publications in the TV listings next to each program. The VCR Plus translates the code into information about time and channel and length of the program, then automatically turns on the VCR at the appropriate time and begins recording. The system can store up to 14 programs on various channels, and additional time can be programmed in for sports events, to cover possible overtimes.

It also enables cable subscribers to tape more than one channel during the programming period, since VCR Plus will change channels automatically. Heretofore they've been required to set a channel and leave it there.

Initially, there are some steps that must be taken to customize the VCR Plus to the owner's VCR and cable system, but thereafter it's one-step programming. After buying the device, the only cost is paying for publications that publish the codes.

Having tested the device, this reporter can testify that it's as easy as it sounds. The drawbacks are relatively minor. One is that, for people who own more than one VCR, a VCR Plus is needed for each machine if they are being programmed simultaneously. Another is that, at least at first, some publications will print codes for only the most popular shows, not all programs.

Among the publications that will be printing the VCR Plus codes are The Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times, Chicago Sun Times, TV Guide and some cable magazines. Louise Wannier, Gemstar's vice president of marketing and business development, said that most of the newspapers (including The Times) and TV Guide will start printing the codes Nov. 25.

Wannier said that Gemstar contracts with TV-listing service companies to provide the codes to the publications. "The terms of the contracts are, by mutual agreement, confidential," she said.

Even though they are promoting the VCR Plus by running the codes, the newspapers involved apparently are doing so for next to nothing, hoping it will boost circulation.

Wannier said that Gemstar has other consumer electronics products in development and already is working on improvements of VCR Plus, such as programming it by telephone and adapting it to the needs of satellite-dish owners.

Meanwhile, other VCR-programming systems are in the works. (Panasonic developed a bar-code system three years ago, but it has never been widely used.)

Last September, Palo Alto-based Insight Telecast announced plans to market a system involving VCRs specially equipped to display listings on a TV screen. Using a remote control device, the consumer choses the programs to be recorded from a menu displayed on his TV screen. Due in 1992, this system requires purchasing a special VCR--costing $50-$150 more than standard machines--and paying a $10 monthly fee to receive the electronic listings.

At a Tokyo trade show last month, the Matsushita Electric Industry Co. demonstrated a system in which the consumer gives programming information to the VCR by speaking into a device resembling a portable telephone. Matsushita didn't announce a price or launch date.

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