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ON TV / BRIAN LOWRY

TiVo, the ultimate script doctor

January 22, 2003|BRIAN LOWRY

For all the casual banter about TiVo, there are only 29 in circulation, all of them situated in Los Angeles or New York City.

OK, that's an exaggeration. Still, given some of the enthusiastic forecasts, TiVo and other so-called "personal video recorders" haven't exactly swept the nation, despite gee-whiz benefits that include the ability to zap through commercials, pause live broadcasts and order "season passes" of favorite programs.

As a TiVo owner who anthropomorphizes the thing ("Don't worry, I'll have TiVo tape it for us"), I have pondered why the growth hasn't been faster. Then I stumbled upon a function that tech types like to call the "killer app" -- the bonus being that TiVo and its ilk not only provide the means to fast-forward through ads but can actually help consumers improve programs by excising the lame parts.

That's right: You can play editor and enhance series like "24" and "Alias," most sports, and staged reality programs such as "The Bachelor."

Let's face it, even the best series have their clunky story arcs and subplots. And really, in a busy world, why take an hour to watch a program if you can do it in two-thirds the time?

The current season of Fox's "24," for example, has been marred by the idiotic subplot surrounding the lead character's daughter Kim, played by Elisha Cuthbert. Around Episode 3, I realized the show moved better and was less annoying if I TiVo-ed it and zapped through all those scenes.

Maybe it's something about spy dramas, but a similar thought occurred to me last season during "Alias." As much as I enjoy the show, I became impatient with expository scenes in which Jennifer Garner's agent Sydney Bristow discusses her feelings with friends, anxious to see the next fight, plot twist or skimpy costume.

Thanks to TiVo, which costs from $200-$350 plus a $12.95 monthly fee, I made it through one episode last year in a record 34 minutes. (Admittedly, it's harder to go as fast this season because I occasionally feel compelled to use the "pause" feature to gawk at Lena Olin, who joined the show as Garner's treacherous mother.)

TiVo works especially well for those who lack the endurance to sit through an entire staged reality show but feel compelled to see what "Joe Millionaire" is all about. Given that so little happens, you can sample each scene, skip the taped confessionals and get most of the flavor in a brisk 12 minutes -- including previews for next week's episode, which, somehow, always look more enticing than what you just watched.

This approach also seems tailor-made to Sunday's Super Bowl halftime show if the overblown concerts that interrupted the conference championship games are any indication. Simply hit "pause" once the second quarter ends, spend 30 minutes sobering up, then fast-forward to the second-half kickoff.

Now, to be clear, I generally dismiss most navel-gazing about interactive TV and ideas like letting viewers choose from among alternate endings or vote on what direction a story should follow. Watching movies and TV shows remains largely a passive act -- absorbing a writer or producer's vision and the story they choose to tell.

Still, a key TiVo feature allows viewers to rapidly zip through programs -- even when in progress -- much more easily than can be accomplished with an old-fashioned VCR. Start watching "The West Wing" at 9:15, say, and by fast-forwarding through commercials and promos, you can finish watching at 10 p.m.

This function strikes fear into the hearts of broadcasters, some of whom have gone so far as to accuse consumers of stealing -- and at minimum undermining ad-supported TV's fragile economics -- by watching programs minus the ads.

From there, it's only a short hop to my epiphany, and the promise of enjoying "Smallville" without the parent lectures, or ESPN's "SportsCenter" minus hockey highlights, blather about baseball trades in January or Chris Berman shouting at the top of his lungs.

According to TiVo's most recent estimates, there are slightly more than a half-million of the little boxes in the U.S. Throw in chief competitor Replay and satellite dishes with TiVo or other "PVR" technology built in, and the penetration still only totals about 1.5% of U.S. homes.

Not that you'd ever know that if you spent most of your time in certain ZIP Codes. Just last week, "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett and FX programming chief Kevin Reilly both casually referenced their TiVos at a TV industry forum in Beverly Hills, as if everyone had one.

Although TiVo's spark in Southern California has yet to catch and spread, technology could change that. Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., who has long been bullish on the technology, maintains the public still hasn't fully grasped the concept; in fact, a Forrester survey a few months ago found that less than a third of consumers are aware of it.

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