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Who's Afraid of Jamie Kellner?

It's a bad sign when I bother to learn a television executive's name, because that usually means they've goaded me past indifference and into grudge-holding territory. When that happens, I scan industry headlines until there's the inevitable career upset, and I sit there reading things like "Stu Bloomberg Fired" and cackling as though I personally handed him the walking papers.

Now that ABC's finished firing people, I've got a new target for my animosity: Jamie Kellner. He's the chairman and CEO of TBS. You know -- the channel people skip over on their way to FX, USA and TNN. Kellner also oversees Turner Network Television (TNT), The WB Network, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, Turner South, Boomerang, TNT Latin America, Cartoon Network Latin America, TCM & Cartoon Network in Europe, TCM & Cartoon Network in Asia Pacific and Cartoon Network Japan, along with CNN News Group, which includes CNN/U.S., CNN Headline News, CNNfn, CNNRadio, CNN Newsource, CNN Airport Network and CNN.com.

Kellner's a busy man, yet he has time to come up with gems like these -- "Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots. Otherwise you couldn't get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a commercial or watch the button you're actually stealing the programming," -- and to argue that people with personal video recorders (PVRs) like TiVo need to spend money for the privilege of manipulating the content on them. Otherwise, in his words, "someone's going to have to pay for television and it's going to be you."

To one point, Kellner's right: with ad-supported shows, you have UPN. Without ad-supported shows, you have... premium cable channels like HBO. Yeah, there's my incentive to support commercial advertisers.

Further fanning the flames: a federal magistrate recently ordered SonicBlue to begin tracking all available information on how people are using their ReplayTV PVRs. If Kellner gets his way, this information then gets turned over to networks who can prosecute people for failing to watch enough commercials.

If people weren't uneasy about their TiVos turning them in for failure to sit through another "Drink this beer, you jerk" commercial before, they are now. Some worrywarts have speculated that rulings like the SonicBlue one portend an end to the halcyon TiVo days of yore.

Is this true? No, and here's why:

-- We've already been through this with the VCR. Back in the early 1980s, Jack Valenti predicted, "the VCR is stripping ... markets clean of our profit potential, you are going to have devastation in this marketplace." As of today, videocassette rental and sales totaled about $11 billion and exceeded box office receipts by over $2 billion. So if Mr. Valenti would like to explain how the VCR hamstrung the movie industry -- an industry, by the way, that in 2001, experienced "the greatest box office year in film history" according to him -- he's more than welcome to give it a shot.

-- There are enough civil liberties groups in America to ensure that Kellner and company can stay tied up in court until digital recording technology is as passe as the VCR and the next big thing has further eroded whatever asinine economic models commercially-supported networks favor. It's a matter of alleging that corporations are infringing on a person's privacy by dictating what they can and cannot do with a digital recording made on a personal device in the privacy of one's home. This may actually be an instance where America's litigious streak works in someone's favor.

-- There are also enough libertarian geeks who regard invasive software as the digital equivalent of a thrown-down gauntlet. Installing anything that threatens to track viewing habits or levy penalities for failing to watch commercials all but guarantees that several people with supernatural powers of concentration will begin directing the full force of those powers toward figuring out how to break the software, then turn to the slightly less interesting question of how to distribute the solution to the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time, for the least amount of money. If you don't believe me, ask Sony how its Key2Audio technology -- which supposedly prevents people from converting CD tracks to MPs on their personal computer -- is doing.

-- There is also HBO, where there are no ads. If this is a matter of watching middling fare with compulsory commercials, or subscribing to channels that offer premium content and no commercials, how many people do you think would continue to watch commercials?

-- Finally, there is a little thing called the DVD player. Some television production companies know a revenue stream when they see one, which explains how so many television shows are suddenly coming out with entire seasons on disc. What's more, many television watchers are smart enough to know that different countries release different disc collections -- all of which are available somewhere on the Internet. If it comes down to having to watch a season of a show episode by commercial-punctuated episode, or waiting for a DVD release that contains an entire season of commercial-free episodes, available for viewing in any order the consumer pleases, whenever the consumer pleases, it's a safe bet that your Farscape fan will be online trying to hunt down DVDs.

So, no. We're in for interesting times in the short run, but TiVo will not be going the way of Napster. All Kellner's accomplished over the course of his crusade is to demonstrate that entertainment industry executives really have no idea how to map television watchers' behavior to a profitable revenue model. He doesn't even understand why people buy PVRs. Hint: it's not because they hate television. People who hate television aren't going to bother recording it, or making appointment viewing, or even lending their eyeballs to the demon appliance. People who have TiVos have them because they love watching television. They're engaged in it. So they don't love watching television on someone else's schedule, nor do they love watching commercials, but the point remains: people who are recording television shows do so because they like them. Why piss off your most passionate constituency? More importantly, why piss off an avid audience that apparently has money to blow on entertainment purchases?

Instead of seeking to hobble digital recorders, media companies should be knocking themselves out to work with them. What is a PVR if not a digital storage box combined with a user interface. So use that -- offer a rerun archive of Friends episodes, with a season subscription or a per-episode download fee. People pay the fee, they get a recording downloaded on their PVR, everyone's happy.

Kellner's main point seems to be that commercial television is a fragile business and PVRs will destroy it. Frankly, if it can't survive the wishes of its customers, the business doesn't deserve to live. Evolve or die, and hand me my remote control.


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