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All alone, off the beaten wavelength

Thanks To Tivo And The Dvr, Watching Television Is Becoming More And More A Party Of One. People Now See Only What They Want To See, When They Want To See It, But Will Mass Media Become Just A Memory?

September 05, 2004|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

DVR is not an acronym for Disrupting our Very Reality. But it should be. TiVo does not stand for Time made Void and null. But it could.

Last spring, the Forrester Research group predicted that digital video recorder subscriptions, like those supplied by the Alviso, Calif.-based company TiVo, will jump from 3.5 million in 2003 to 6.5 million at the end of this year. By 2009, Forrester says, 44% of American households will have some form of DVR. As TiVo's recent financial struggles prove, the DVR market is increasingly competitive; experts in and out of the industry agree that DVR technology will soon be as basic to new television sets as the remote control.

Do not adjust your set. The sound you hear, above the Xanax-popping of network schedulers and television ad reps, is Marshall McLuhan's electronic hearth being replaced by a virtual yule log your best friend recorded off the Internet last Christmas and your 4-year-old telling you to pause it.

The other sound you hear is the vernacular changing, as time-honored labels -- channel surfing, prime time, daytime and late-night television -- become meaningless, replaced with Bradburyian terms such as "time shifting," "appointment viewing" and "digital convergence."

And the image you are seeing could be the biggest change in our relationship to television since television was invented -- the shift from mass media, which brought the world into the living room, to self-serve media, through which viewers need never see anything they don't want to see. There will be no return to our regularly scheduled program.

"This is an acceleration of the process that began with the VCR," says Ron Simon, curator of television at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. "The VCR allowed us to time shift, but DVRs make it effortless. This is a breakdown in the national experience of television, a breakdown of an ongoing national conversation."

"It has fundamentally changed the way we use television," says Todd P. Leavitt, president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. " 'Must-see TV' goes out the window, the water-cooler show goes out the window. You create your own schedule, you become your own Freddy Silverman."

Only, unlike programming legend and former head of NBC Fred Silverman, you can create completely commercial-free viewing. Advertisers, already threatened by subscription channels, are now scrambling to avoid the fatal kiss of thumb and fast-forward button. Product placement is being resurrected, as product "embedding," and once again, the line between the soap and the opera is blurring; and -- last spring, Sears and Miller Lite created feature serials with episodic commercials disguised as mini-miniseries.


But perhaps more important to viewers is how DVR technology is changing the very nature of television and the role it plays in the household.

During its half-century of social dominance, television brought to viewers if not a sense of rationality then at least a sense of order. Sure, we called it the "idiot box" and endlessly debated its impact on our minds and bodies: Does it decrease attention span? Increase obesity? But if nothing else, TV was punctual. If you wanted to watch "Leave It to Beaver" or "Barney Miller" or "The West Wing," you had to be in a certain place at a certain time, along with the rest of the country.

This required alert and informed scheduling and, occasionally, tough personal choices: "Can I wind this date up in time to watch 'Saturday Night Live?' " But for all the annoyances, there is security in structure and comfort in knowing that if you are building your evening around "Seinfeld" and "Friends," so are millions of other people; that even as you sit on your sofa, you are participating in a public event.

Which is why when McLuhan conjured the image of the electronic hearth, he saw the creation of a global village, in which people were connected, for better or worse, not just by the shared content of television programs but by the shared experience of watching it. The medium, he famously concluded, is the message. Only now, the medium has changed.

With the vast majority of Americans living in homes with two or more televisions and, in many, computers that play DVDs, the image of the family hour -- in which old and young gather 'round the set together -- has long been abandoned. But still, most viewers have to conform to national television schedules, and still, networks could, to a certain extent, shape viewing habits -- placing new or struggling shows in certain time slots hoping for spillover viewers, for example.

But with DVRs, all of it -- time, day, program position, episode order -- is up for grabs. Viewers can bank a whole series and watch it as a marathon, parents can tape Saturday morning and parcel it out through the week. The State of the Union, season finales and premieres, the gymnastics portion of the Olympics can now be consigned to the great gray area of "whenever."

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