TiVo: Television on Your Time

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2531, 2007-08-03, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18-19) and their website.

Decades ago, when broadcast television had proliferated throughout the major metropolitan areas of the United States, consumers had little choice as to television content, and no choice as to schedule. Even years later, when no American home was complete without a television set, there were still only a few major networks, offering a limited range of material.

Moreover, the broadcast networks dictated exactly when the viewing audience would get a chance to see that material, and if it would ever be presented again. If a particular episode of a television show was not rerun, then any viewer who missed its broadcast would theoretically never again have another opportunity to see it.

The networks' iron grip on content and scheduling was greatly weakened by some new media delivery technologies: Cable television networks quickly expanded the number of available channels from half a dozen to many times that (depending upon the chosen service plan). Consumers could pay extra for premium channels, offering movies (even some non-adult ones), shown at multiple times over many days and even weeks, dramatically increasing the chances that an individual would be able to watch any given movie at a convenient time.

Hollywood and made-for-TV movies could be viewed without the extra cost of cable television, with the advent of videocassettes (VHS and Betamax), laser discs, and digital video disks (DVDs). This essentially solved the problem of limited choice as to content. Recordable videotapes and videocassette recorders (VCRs) provided a huge step forward in solving the problem of limited choice as to when television content could be viewed.

But using videocassettes to record shows scheduled at odd hours, has many disadvantages: The majority of US consumers find VCRs difficult if not impossible to program — particularly when their children are not around to do it for them. Both the VCR and videocassette contain moving parts that can break; the former can be expensive to have fixed, and the latter are practically impossible to fix. Videocassette image and audio quality is rarely consistent — at least, consistently good.

VCRs on Steroids

The media industry realized that there was tremendous potential for a service that allowed television enthusiasts to easily record any program, regardless of its show time, in a high-quality digital format, on a reliable device. It would be even better if consumers could easily search for programs that match their viewing preferences. Thus was born the digital video recorder (DVR), also known as the personal video recorder (PVR).

Although the underlying technologies and ideas for the DVR can be traced back to the late 1960s, they did not see full commercial fruition until the late 1990s, spearheaded by ReplayTV and TiVo. There have been additional services and devices introduced since then, including Freevo, a promising open source alternative. But these have been the major players, and TiVo has emerged as the leader.

A TiVo device connects to a TV set as does a VCR, and records TV shows received via broadcast, cable, and satellite TV. But that is where the similarities end. A TiVo is much easier to program, and can even be programmed over the Internet. It allows one to search for shows by actor, title, genre, or any keywords. Shows can be recorded on one TV in the household, and viewed on another. Digital files, including music and photos, can be stored on a TiVo, and accessed later.

TiVo has joined with other media companies to provide additional services. Subscribers can rent or purchase thousands of movies and TV shows from Amazon.com's Unbox service. Movie tickets can be purchased from Fandango, just in case the subscriber is not getting enough movies at home via TiVo. Internet radio is available from Live365, as are Yahoo weather reports, on the rare chance that the subscriber wants to go outdoors on the weekend, instead of catching up with the TV shows recorded during the week.

Keys to TV Heaven

In preparation for using the TiVo service, the consumer must purchase a dedicated device, the TiVo box, and connect it to their TV and media source, such as their cable TV line. The consumer can sign up for the service from TiVo's website, or over the phone (877-BUY-TiVo). Additional computer networking equipment may be required for anyone who wants to add a TiVo DVR to their home network.

In terms of cost for equipment and service, there are a number of options, with the cheaper ones being fairly reasonable. The TiVo box essentially comes in two models: The Series2 DVRs are ideal for customers using cable TV, can store either 80 or 180 hours, and are capable of recording two different shows simultaneously. At the high end, the Series3 can store 300 hours of programming, and also supports high-definition TV (HDTV), which reduces the number of recordable hours down to 32. In addition, it can take advantage of THX, and at this time is the only DVR in the world that is THX-certified.

TiVoToGo is a newer feature that is designed for consumers who want to transfer movies, TV shows, and other large media files from their TiVo box to a desktop computer or laptop. It also allows smaller files, such as videos, to be transferred to handheld devices, including iPods. TiVoToGo utilizes the Digital Rights Management (DRM) copyright protection scheme to prevent the sharing of content among TiVoToGo subscribers — at least, to try to do so.

Unplanned Choices

As with any proprietary media device and service that is not completely open to scrutiny, and thus attempts to limit end-user control of the media, hackers did not waste any time in taking TiVo in directions that the corporate planners likely never foresaw. Some of these clever modifications have probably caused little concern among the bean counters at TiVo. For instance, electronics whizzes figured out how to replace the native TiVo hard drives with larger ones, thereby increasing those units' storage capacities.

Yet the accountants and lawyers undoubtedly saw the writing on the wall when they first learned that their TiVoToGo's DRM system had been cracked, thereby making it possible for people to export content to other devices, and other viewers. Programmers have created applications that can automatically strip away the DRM protection, and prepare any TiVo content for transfer to PCs, Macs, and iPods.

Even more than half a century after media consumers began demanding more of broadcast television services, modern-day media companies continue to wrestle with subscribers who want maximum control over the entertainment content for which they have paid.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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