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All alone, off the beaten wavelength

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.”

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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.

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A FUNDAMENTAL TURNOVER

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.

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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.”

This can disrupt the time and space continuum on a personal level -- viewers still reeling from the jump “Masterpiece Theatre” made from Sunday to Monday a few years ago may find it difficult to negotiate a world in which it doesn’t matter which night “Everybody Loves Raymond” is on. But more important, it makes watching television a personally controlled and increasingly solitary act.

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Short of the Super Bowl, a national disaster, or a high-speed chase involving a celebrity fugitive, there is no reason to watch television in real time and increasingly little chance viewers will see something they hadn’t already planned to see.

“Mass media doesn’t exist anymore,” says Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. “Instead we have personal media. Increasingly, people fill their information space with only what they want to see -- things that reinforce their worldview. Take away channel surfing, and you never have to see anything that you don’t choose to see.”

Leavitt and others believe that people will still connect over the shows they see, but in a different form. “There will be chat rooms and blogs,” Leavitt says, “like with ‘Big Brother,’ where it doesn’t matter so much when exactly you saw it.”

Saffo finds this troubling; cyberspace, he says, enforces the idea of like-minded consensual groups, replacing the more diverse community of a city or a neighborhood. “The old idea that you had to get along with people you might not necessarily like or agree with because they live in your town is vanishing,” he says. “You can now occupy 100% of your information space with only those things that support your worldview. That is pretty frightening.”

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Saffo’s greatest fear is that the TiVo generation will reach adulthood with little knowledge of a mass media. “We forget, when McLuhan wrote what he wrote it was shocking. People were nostalgic for front-porch culture. Now we’re nostalgic for Walter Cronkite.”

Already the TiVo generation views television more as media valet than a member of the Fourth Estate. Many young children simply don’t understand the constraints of “linear TV.” The father of one 6-year-old could not get her to understand why Grandma’s television didn’t have a DVR. “Grandma’s TV is broken,” he finally said.

Indeed, many of TiVo’s first customers purchased the technology so they could control what their children watched -- two years ago, the last time TiVo collected such data, children’s programming was the most popular type being recorded. Now, many parenting guides, including one prepared this year by Cable in the Classroom and National PTA, extol DVRs as a way for families to be media savvy and media safe.

Peggy Charren, a longtime children’s television advocate, thinks DVRs solve many of the problems that propelled her into the advocacy business. “The personalization is good,” she says. “The more choices, the merrier. The problem with kids and television is they’re always doing something else when the terrific show is on and watching television when something crummy is on.”

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A SPLINTERED AUDIENCE

But in a way, the changes in technology are bringing content full circle. Curator Simon sees a return to the practices of the industry’s early days when seeing people, real people, on a small screen provided an instant resonance for viewers. “We are seeing more television events, like ‘American Idol,’ which is more like a sporting event,” he says. “Reality TV is similar to early television in that it’s shot live and that’s what holds viewers’ interest.”

Yet even those shows cannot unify the audience the way television programs once did. “The demographics are no longer 18 to 34,” he says. “Now it’s much more splintered. The Internet has redefined the neighborhood, and television is following.”

For those working in television, DVRs offer a huge challenge, says Leavitt -- now it “isn’t enough to just grab viewers by the eyeballs. Now you have to get them to think ahead, to like your show enough to program it.”

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The industry, Leavitt says, has been in a state of flux since HBO proved that you don’t have to rely on selling soap to finance your show, he says. He sees a trend toward more subscription services -- perhaps including shows that are available for recording but not broadcast.

“We are just getting to critical mass,” he says of the immediate impact DVRs are having on academy members. “It will take a while before the big ideas hit the pocketbooks, but it is a big challenge. A limitless shelf space, an international audience.”

There is little research on exactly how people are using DVRs -- what sorts of programs are being recorded, how many of them are being watched, if the commercials are being skipped, even whether DVR users watch more or less television (at this point, different sources say different things).

That is about to change. Nielsen Media Research recently entered a licensing agreement with TiVo and DirectTV under which they will record the viewing habits of 10,000 TiVo and as many as 20,000 DirectTV subscribers. The reports will eventually be made available to Nielsen’s clients.

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“We decided six months ago that this would be a good idea,” says Scott Brown, senior vice president for strategies, relationships, marketing and technology at Nielsen. “There is a great interest in time shifting within the industry.”

So much interest that next year Nielsen will be changing its business model to include DVR and VCR recording and playback habits in the data it collects for television ratings, which, according to Brown, will create a new world order in the industry.

“The currency in how everyone buys and sells television will completely change,” he says.

And if Nielsen says it, it must be so.

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Contact Mary McNamara at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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