Seeking the next TV revolution? Here's the clue: It's spelled TiVo

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I knew we had crossed a bridge in the infotainment industry when two weeks ago I returned home from a hectic day in the literary trenches to this revelation from my wife. "I get it now," she told me. "TiVo is my friend."

As I've gotten on in life, I've determined the war between the sexes is fought on two fronts: the Three Stooges and consumer appliances. True to form, Sue is no fan of gadgets -- let alone one that enables me to effortlessly gather from the farthest outskirts of Television City the greatest hits (and pokes) of the Messrs. Howard, Fine and Howard. But such a device is TiVo, and I can't help but believe my beloved's rapidly gained affinity for it attests to treacherous times ahead for programmers and the marketers that depend on them.

Let me tell you something about TiVo: If you are reading this publication and you do not know what it is, you should not be reading this publication. For TiVo is the leading brand in a new category of contraption called personal video recorders, or PVRs. These are hard-drive-based machines that can capture TV programming continually, in real time and at great length, enabling the viewer to store it for later playback, or to pause the "live" content and pick it up again after the bathroom break is over.

At first glance, TiVo seems purely evolutionary. With a storage capacity of six to 30 hours of programming, depending on the desired playback quality, it serves largely as a super-VCR. Just as VCR-Plus, now built into many videocassette recorders, eliminated the embarrassing blinking nines from your audiovisual rack, the capacious TiVo abolishes those awful moments of tape-deprived decision: Erase "Plan 9 From Outer Space" to record "The Giant Gila Monster"? Oh, the agony!

But as I have spent time with TiVo, I've come to the conclusion PVRs are actually revolutionary. And like most revolutions -- including the one that involved taxation without representation, the Boston Tea Party and the Continental Congress -- this one is about control.

For decades, a question has loomed over TV and its audience: Do we watch TV to be entertained or do we watch to be accompanied? For more than three decades -- from the time then-NBC executive Paul Klein developed the concept of "least objectionable programming," or LOP -- the industry has responded with the affirmation that people want accompaniment. Following on the heels of a postwar sociology that saw us all as members of "the lonely crowd," this made sense. In our solitude, we craved nothing so much as white noise.

Although cable TV and VCRs were supposed to put this "white noise theory" to the test, they seem to have validated it. While cable has sliced hefty percentages from the broadcast networks' audiences, its fare (talk shows, movies of the week, sports, nature documentaries, etc.) largely mimics broadcast's conventions. As for VCRs, they never initiated the mass movement to time shifting and personalized programming that TV executives feared. And so, to this day, despite an occasional Fox or UPN pushing at the boundaries of taste and adolescent ritual, the broadcast networks have persisted in their LOP-sided, "Touched by an Angel" approach.

PVRs, I suspect, will finally shift TV away from its white-noise paradigm, not least because they take all the messiness (tapes, time codes, the torn back page of today's newspaper) out of the self-programming process. The first hint I had of this came from the first group of acquaintances who had acquired these devices: sports fanatics. Several had begun to reflexively use the automatic replay and slo-mo buttons to review basketball moves. It's no accident that TiVo's main competitor is called ReplayTV.

But TiVo and ReplayTV allow for vastly more control even than that. Both come packaged with guides that automate the programming process, allowing a viewer to pick and choose from a variety of menus to customize the entire TV experience. ReplayTV even allows for the creation of personalized theme channels; the Stooge Network no longer has to remain a fantasy.

I took to this within a day; I don't even bother zipping across the TV spectrum, but instead stack movie musicals and Grade B films noir like Delta Shuttles over LaGuardia. That it's a powerful transformation of what TV is became apparent that night I returned home and found Sue bopping among old "Larry Sanders Shows" and "Inside the Actors Studio" reruns. TiVo is now Sue's friend. But it is the enemy of LOP, lassitude, white noise and networks -- other than those I make myself.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at rothenberg_randall@strategy-business.com.

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