We watch... so you don't have to.

The End of Television As We Know It

My television world has gone topsy-turvy. No longer do I watch shows on their network-designated nights. No longer do I watch commercials (except when they're zipping by at high speed). No longer do I fret about having enough videotape ready to record my favorite shows.

At this point, the savvier TeeVee readers out there will have anticipated what I'm going to say next: that I've bought a TiVo -- one of these new little gadgets that they're calling Personal Video Recorders (PVRs). And, my friends, I will never go back to watching television the old way. Never, ever.

First, a little explanation for what these PVRs are. They're essentially little television computers. Inside them are a bunch of chips and a gigantic hard drive. You plug in your cable, your satellite box, and the like into the TiVo, and then attach the TiVo to your television set. TiVo records programs, not to a videotape, but to the TiVo hard drive. (It uses the same sort of digital video technology that DVD uses, but it stores to a rewriteable hard drive rather than a read-only DVD disc.)

When I bought the TiVo box -- a stereo-component-sized item actually called the Philips Personal TV Receiver -- I honestly felt that this kind of technology would never really hit the mainstream, at least not for a long time. That's because while this is cool technology, it's pretty hard to describe the benefits. (Not that I won't try to explain it to you.)

But now that I've had the TiVo for a few months, I've changed my opinion. The PVR is going to be everywhere, and it's going to be everywhere much faster than you think. It'll be attached to DVD players. It'll be built into television sets. And within a year or two, every digital cable box and satellite receiver being manufactured will have one inside it.

So let me explain to you, as best I can, why I am now a card-carrying disciple of the Church of TiVo.

TiVo Program GuidePlay back and record at the same time. This is perhaps the most poorly communicated feature of TiVo, but it's the best one, too. With TiVo, you can watch a prerecorded program at the same time that TiVo is recording something else. If you're a compulsive VCR time-shifter, you could always watch everything on tape -- but you'd need a second VCR in order to do what TiVo does, namely the ability to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Wednesday evening while you're recording The West Wing for later.

This is incredibly freeing, because it means you don't have to worry about what's being broadcast by the networks at any given time -- if you want to record it, you do, and TiVo will grab it. But you can watch whatever you like, whenever you like, regardless.

Pause live TV. Ads for TiVo and its competitors (ReplayTV and the new enhanced WebTV) make a big deal about this, as well they should. But it takes a while to sink in: if you're watching something (not recording it, but just watching it live) and you get a phone call or have to go to the bathroom, you just hit the pause button on the remote as if you were watching a recording. TiVo stops the action and keeps recording the live program. When you're ready to roll again -- up to 30 minutes later -- you can press the play button and begin watching where you left off. TiVo keeps recording ahead of you. When you get to a commercial break, you can fast-forward just as if you were watching a recording. When you finally catch up to the live signal, TiVo drops you back into the action.

Talk about liberating. I pause a football game, take the dog for a walk, and come back to pick up the game right where I left off. By the time I've reached the middle of the 3rd quarter, I've sped through commercials and the halftime show and am back in sync with the live game.

Selective deletion. It's a feature that's hard to sell, but being able to selectively delete programs off the TiVo hard drive is one of the things that makes me a believer.

On a videotape, everything you record goes on a long strand of tape, one show after the other. On TiVo, everything is located on a hard drive, which can be erased and rewritten at any time. This means you don't have to search around on TiVo to find where the beginning of Friends is -- you just go to the Now Showing menu, click down to Friends and press play.

But it gets better. Because once you're done with Friends, you delete it from TiVo -- and that 30 minutes of space is freed up to be used elsewhere. That's not something that would really work on a VCR, because Friends might be wedged between two shows you haven't watched yet... say The West Wing and Frasier.

If you're like me, you end up recording over things you don't want to record over, or building a library of unlabeled videotapes containing a bunch of things you've already seen and a few shows you haven't gotten around to yet. Then you forget what shows are where, give up, and record over it all.

With TiVo, you just pick a show to watch, watch it, and delete it. The space on the hard drive gets put back into the pool for any new show to use.

Now Playing on TiVo A smart interface. I used to own a gadget called VideoGuide. VideoGuide was a precursor of TiVo that let you see an on-screen program guide and select programs you'd like to record. (When it came time to record the shows, VideoGuide would use an infrared signal to turn on your VCR, turn it to the right channel, and begin recording the show.)

VideoGuide wasn't bad. The on-screen program guide on my satellite box isn't bad. But TiVo's on-screen guide is fantastic. It shows you everything that's currently on (with descriptions), and you can also peer into the future to see what's going to be on later. Want to record something that's on at 3 a.m. tomorrow? Press a button and TiVo will record that show.

As a satellite TV subscriber, I also like TiVo because it's unified my TV viewing life. My satellite box is connected to the TiVo (TiVo controls it remotely via a serial cable), but so is the cable that carries all my local channels. TiVo takes both sources of programming and integrates them, so I don't have to keep switching between satellite channels and local channels. They're all in one place.

But TiVo's interface goes beyond the program guide. It's got a friendly series of menus that step you through the various tasks you can use TiVo to perform -- you can pick programs to record, see what's coming up in your recording schedule, look at the list of programs currently ready for viewing on the TiVo hard drive... even search for a program by its name and find when it's going to be on next.

Season passes. Taking the friendly interface concept a little further, with TiVo you can do more than set individual shows to record -- you can tell TiVo to record a show whenever it's on. After a few weeks with TiVo, ours was set up to record every single show we watched faithfully. That '70s Show moves to a different time slot? No problem -- TiVo knows the entire television schedule (downloaded via a toll-free telephone call in the middle of the night) and will follow your shows wherever they go.

Sometimes there are hitches -- what happens if two shows you watch are on the same night? TiVo has to pick one, and you need to check to see it's picked the right one. It'd be nice if you could tell TiVo not to record reruns. But in general, once TiVo knows what you want to record on a regular basis, your TV viewing life becomes a lot easier. All you need to do is look at the menu of shows TiVo has recorded, and pick what you want to watch.

TiVo's Suggestions. Perhaps the weirdest thing about TiVo can be found on its included remote control -- two buttons, one showing a thumbs pointing up, the other with a thumb pointing down. As you watch shows (or even simply select them in the program guide), you can press these buttons to make your pleasure or displeasure known to TiVo.

TiVo then uses your likes and dislikes to extrapolate what sorts of shows you like to watch. Then, when you're not watching TV, it fills up its hard drive with items it thinks you might want to see. (This is extra space being filled up -- these "suggested" shows never over-write shows you've specifically requested.) In my case, this means there are usually a few episodes of The Simpsons and NewsRadio on my TiVo in case I want to watch them.

Remote The TiVo remote. Finally, I've got to say a few words about the TiVo remote: It's cool. There, I said it. This contoured, space-age clicker fits easily in your hand. It looks neat. It's got well-labeled buttons, including an almost Nintendo-style directional button that you use to navigate TiVo's various menu options. It's the best remote control I've ever used.

Upgradeability. TiVo is, at its core, a computer. It's upgradeable. In fact, TiVo has already announced several updates for this year, including the ability to press a button during ads for upcoming TV shows and have TiVo automatically record the advertised shows. New features are added during the device's overnight phone call, so they're basically transparent.

And there you have it: one man's journey into the new frontier of TV. I no longer watch live shows other than sporting events. I no longer watch most shows on the days they're aired. For my favorites, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I usually don't start watching them until a half hour after they've started, so that I can be assured that I can watch the whole thing without sitting through the commercials.

I no longer live in a world where "Must See TV" exists on a particular night. I pick shows that I want to see, be they on the networks, cable, or simply on local stations. I watch them whenever I'm in the mood. Prime Time has ceased to have any meaning to me. I am no longer controlled by the television; I control it.

I love my TiVo. You want to take it away from me? You'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.


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