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My TiVo, Right or Wrong

If we were to take all the people in this fine nation of ours and draw up a list that ranked each and every person on the magnitude of their home entertainment system, I'm fairly confident that I would be bringing up the rear. Oh, there's probably some guy in Idaho who went off the grid in late '99 to avoid the almost-certain Y2K apocalypse and maybe a survivalist out in Montana living in a moss-covered shack on the outskirts of Bozeman -- I certainly have more gadgetry than them. But really, those two guys are the only thing standing between me and last place in the competition to see who's amassed the most home electronic gadgetry measured by sheer tonnage.

I have a TV that I bought from the Price Club in 1994 after hours of painstaking research revealed that the only way to get a cheaper box would to be to go with one made out of cardboard. My VCR dates back to the Bush administration -- the one headed by the guy who threw up on other people as opposed to the current occupant who merely pisses on himself. It was only in the past four years that I got a CD player; up until then, I thought music was supposed to have pops and whistles.

It's not that I'm a Luddite, terrified of the magic talking boxes and the ax-wielding dwarves that doubtlessly dwell inside. No, my reason for eschewing the latest in audio-visual entertainment is a much more straightforward one -- I'm appallingly cheap. And bitter experience has proven that the quickest way to ensure a technology becomes obsolete is to have me buy it.

And yes -- I am enjoying my eight-year-old Sega Genesis game console. Thanks for asking.

But despite missing the early adopter boat on almost all things electronic -- as evidenced by the crumbling TV, antiquated VCR and other early 90s-vintage devices cluttering up my home -- I have a TiVo. For those of you who've somehow missed out on the other Vidiots plugging the TiVo as if they're getting a cut of the sales -- and if you are, fellas, I want my taste -- a TiVo is basically a computer for your TV. Much like a VCR, it records your favorite programs. Unlike a VCR, there's no nasty videotape. You just tell TiVo what you want to watch, TiVo records it, and when you're done, TiVo disposes of the evidence like an unwanted Microsoft Word file.

TiVo is hip. It's happening. It's now. And it's decidedly out of character for me to own one. So why, you may ask, after a lifetime spent shunning the latest and greatest equipment that Sony, Panasonic and Magnavox have to offer, did I leap feet-first into the oh-so-cutting-edge world of personal digital video recorders?

Simple. I also have a wife.

The wife, she loves the gadgetry. She has a brand, spanking new iBook, a Palm Pilot, even one of those portable MP3 players. Me, I work on an aged laptop computer that doubles as a free weight, my idea of a handheld organizer is a 3-by-5 index card, and, until my wife explained it to me a moment ago, I thought MP3 was, like, another MTV cable outlet -- one that aired Remote Control reruns and Road Rules outtakes on continuous loop or something.

So when a woman like that hears about how you can pause live TV and record one show while playing back another and store hours of programming on a hard drive only to zip through commercials when you play back your favorite shows later, she simply must have one. Me, I hear something like that and think, "Man, you never know what scrape that crazy cat Garfield will get himself into next."

Because that Garfield, he's the loose canon of the comics world.

But you want to keep your spouse happy. So I took her by the hand, gazed into her eyes and said, "Honey, I know you get a real kick out of gadgets like this. So what we're going to do is head down to the nearest consumer electronic store toot sweet and buy one of those TiVos, no matter what the expense." Then I went back to watching a baseball game on TV and hoped she would forget all about it. A risky strategy, sure, but one that usually pays off whenever she asks me to do the dishes.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why my wife married me, by the by.

The wife, perhaps realizing that "Purchase a TiVo" fell somewhere between "Learn How to Merengue" and "Check Apartment for Radon Leaks" on my list of priorities, decided instead to take matters into her own hands. Like other good Americans who find seemingly insurmountable roadblocks in the path to fulfilling their fondest desires, my wife followed the only option available to her -- she entered an Internet-based giveaway contest. The contest required her to write an essay eloquently explaining why she deserved to be hooked up with a free TiVo. And she must have made a pretty impressive plea, because she ended up winning -- this, in spite of the contest rules that expressly forbid professional writers such as herself from taking part. Then again, it's been several months now, and the TiVo people haven't shown up at the door demanding that we return our ill-gotten gain. And what the hell are they going to do if we refuse to give it back -- throw us in TiVo jail?

So, by hook and by crook, we got our hands on a TiVo. There was a minor hitch hooking up the TiVo, as the instruction manual assumes you've bought a TV and VCR within the past two Olympiads. Still, the techno-savvy gearheads who happen staff this Web site got quite a kick out of my inability to plug the right cable into the right input and connect it with the proper doohickey on my cable box. I blame this wretched display of Yankee ingenuity on the fact that I was battling a severe head cold when I set up my Tivo and, as a result, was gassed on DayQil -- that and the fact that I lead a far richer interior life than my colleagues. Oh sure, they can hack a multitude of devices and write line after line of Perl script, but deep down inside, they're sad, empty men. And it tears them apart to see me living a fuller life than they could ever conjure up in their oversized brains.

Goddamn right it does.

But despite the some initial ambivalence about learning the ins and outs of the new device -- change, in my book, should not only be feared and resisted, it should be chased screaming from the room with picks and shovels -- I have to admit I really like the TiVo. Oh sure, it's not a TV with a single video out or a VCR with a rats nest of coaxial cables, but anything that gives me full and unfettered access to Home Run Derby reruns on ESPN Classic can't be all that bad.

That's the great thing about TiVo -- your days of coming home, flipping on the TV and settling for the least offensive of your channel-surfing options will be nothing but unpleasant memories tainted with pain, sadness and awful ER episodes. Now when I turn on the TV, I actually get to choose from programs I like. Last week's Simpsons episode? On the TiVo. That showing of "Citizen Kane" that aired on Turner Classic Movies during the dead of night? TiVo'd. A slew of NewsRadio reruns? Hot damn, I'm programming the TiVo to record those now. Now I can easily track down and record programs that I'd never think to sit down and program into my VCR, let alone find the time to watch.

That also happens to be one of the worst things about TiVo, incidentally. Yeah, you're only watching the programs you want to watch -- but that doesn't mean you're watching less TV. Thanks to those NewsRadio reruns and that midnight showing of "Citizen Kane," you're watching as much television as ever -- probably even more, in my case. Because now I'm recording shows when I'm at work, when I'm out on the town, when I'm sound asleep. And when I turn on the TV now, all those shows are waiting for me, taunting me.

"Phil," my TiVo will cry out to me. "You specifically asked me to record the WKRP episode where Mr. Carlson drops those turkeys from the plane. Don't you want to watch it? Why did you have me record it if you don't want to watch it? Phiiiiiiiiiiiiiiil? Are you suddenly too good for WKRP? Are you suddenly too good for me?"

Nope. Clearly I am not.

With a VCR -- or with my Cold War-era VCR, anyway -- setting the recording times was a complicated task that required, at a minimum, a slide rule, the most recent copy of TV Guide and a good, stiff drink. TiVo practically does all the work for me. The programming schedule is already downloaded on to TiVo; all I have to do is hit a button -- something simple enough for a lab monkey to handle, let alone me.

TiVo even goes to the trouble of picking shows to record on my behalf. It's able to discern my tastes, you see, based upon shows that I've recorded in the past or things I have on my wish list or programming I've otherwise indicated a shine towards.

The TiVo people may have also planted a chip in my frontal lobe as I slept. You can never be too sure.

Most of the time, TiVo does a pretty good job discerning my wants and desires. At the top of the current suggestions list, for example, are "Rushmore," "Eight Men Out," "From the Earth to the Moon" and "Cool Hand Luke" -- all fine movies or mini-series I've see before and would gladly watch again and again. Of course, TiVo can also get things horribly, terribly wrong. Record "High Noon," say, or "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," and TiVo will conclude -- quite naturally, one could argue -- that what you really want to do is record every Western ever made. Because in TiVo's fevered mechanical brain, there's not a lick of difference between "Once Upon a Time in the West," Sergio Leone's epic saga of the frontier's dying days, and "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again," Don Knotts' magnum opus -- which is sort of like dying, at any rate.

There's no accounting for taste, as TiVo proves time and time again. That's especially true in a multi-person household, where one man's TiVo recommendation is another's invitation to grab the nearest pillow to muffle the screams.

Let's pretend you're me for a second -- stop sobbing, I have to bear that cross every day -- sitting on the couch, watching the Oakland Athletics holding their own in a particularly tight scrap with the New York nine. The A's are threatening to score, the excitement is so thick you could cut it with a spork. And then, out of nowhere, a message from TiVo pops up on the screen.

"Excuse me a second, chief," the TiVo says, in what I'm sure would be an apologetic voice, if speech were actually a feature on these contraptions. "I'm sure you're enjoying the baseball game, and I'm well aware of the fact that the runner on second has rounded third and is streaking for home, but your wife wanted me to record some dreary British miniseries over on BBC America right now. Just wanted to let you know that the awesome sight of Jason Giambi tearing into a hanging curve is about to suddenly dissolve into shots of tight-lipped men drinking tea and wandering around gardens and muttering about the Labour Party. I'd love to stay here, chief, but my hands are tied."

What would you do in such a situation? Bang your head against the hard, unyielding surface of the coffee table? Run screaming to a neighbor's house in hopes that they either have the game on or will be easily frightened into changing the channel? Write a long, rambling piece for a TV Web site that's ostensibly about TiVo but is, in fact, little more than a passive-aggressive attempt to shame your wife into watching fewer BBC America shows?

You would likely do what I do -- take what TiVo gives you, with neither protest nor whimper.

Because that's how it is with TiVo -- for every pro, there's a con. For every rose, there's a thorn. For every Simon, there's a Garfunkel. TiVo gives you more choices -- but that doesn't necessarily ensure you'll make good ones. TiVo knows what kind of shows you like -- but is it really that soothing to know a consumer electronic device knows you better than you know yourself? TiVo gives you the chance to record anything you want at any time of the day -- but it provides that same chance to others in the household who are just as likely to record "Merchant & Ivory Present: Repression!" instead of something, you know, interesting.

But if there's one drawback to TiVo that stands out above all others -- one big, ugly pimple of a con that threatens to overshadow the otherwise blemish-free pros -- it's that TiVo is only as smart as I am. And, as we've certainly established by now, that isn't very smart at all.

We take you back in time to last spring's NCAA hockey championship game, an event I TiVo'd because I will watch any broadcast in which they keep score. Stick a referee, a ball and an elaborate-yet-easy-to-grasp scoring system on Ally McBeal, and I'd probably watch that, too.

For those of you who lack an instant recall of great moments in collegiate hockey, the championship between the Boston College Eagles and the Fightin' Sioux of the University of North Dakota was quite the donnybrook. B.C. led most of the way, building up a 2-0 lead, until the Sioux rallied in the final 3:42 seconds of the game to tie it up and force overtime. And then...

Well, I wouldn't know. Because TiVo only set aside three hours for the game. And since the overtime period began at the 3:01 mark, my recording had flickered to a stop long before the game-winning goal had been scored.

I still don't know who won that game. For all I know, Boston College and North Dakota are still playing.

Since that horrible, overtime-free night, TiVo has made life easier for simpletons like me. TiVo 2, the latest software upgrade, adds a buffering feature that lets you tack on extra time before or after a show for those occasions when the Food Network inexplicably starts broadcasting Good Eats at 5:59 instead of 6:00 or when the Boston College goalie does his best imitation of a sieve during crunch time. Still, using the buffering feature still requires a modicum of thought on the user's part. And, as medical science has proven time and again, TV watching and thought do not usually skip down the lane hand-in-hand.

So what to make of this TiVo? Sure, it changes the way you watch television -- largely for the better. But it also forces you to confront a completely new set of problems you'd never have to face if you just hooked up the TV to cable in the wall and watched whatever the cable company deigns to send you.

Then again, that whole technology-as-a-blessing-and-a-curse spiel is hardly exclusive to TiVo. "Sometimes," one of the characters in "Inherit the Wind" says, "I think there's a man behind a counter who says, 'All right, you can have a telephone; but you'll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powder-puff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline."

And... well, I don't know quite how the scene winds up. I was watching it on TV, but TiVo had to switch the channels to record Absolutely Fabulous.


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