New Yorkers who subscribe to Time Warner digital cable TV now have the option of acquiring a fancy new cable box containing a built-in digital video recorder (DVR) designed to interface directly with Time Warner’s on-screen TV guide. Translated into English, this means you can record any TV program, or every episode of any TV series, simply by pushing a couple of buttons on your remote control, all for a ridiculously small monthly fee. I got a DVR a couple of days ago, and since then I’ve had to discipline myself severely in order to get any work done at all.
My new cable box does all sorts of cool stuff. Among other things, I can pause a TV show while it’s being broadcast live, then pick up right where I left off. (Please don’t laugh if all this is old hat to you. For me, it’s still a novelty.) But the most important part of the box is the DVR. You don’t have to read the admirably terse manual to figure out how it works: the menu-driven controls are intuitive to a fault. After fiddling with the remote for about 30 seconds, I was merrily clicking my way through the Turner Classic Movies schedule for the rest of the week.
If you own or have read about TiVo, the stand-alone home DVR system, none of this is news. The only difference is that Time Warner hooks its DVR up for you, and the whole shebang costs (as the old commercials used to say) just pennies a day. For this reason, given the ubiquity of cable TV and the rapid spread of digital systems, I can’t imagine that TiVo has much of a future. Everybody to whom I demonstrate my new cable box wants one–right now.
I have no doubt that the introduction of the cable-box DVR will have a massive and immediate effect on TV viewing habits, probably even greater than that brought about by the introduction of the VCR. Not only does the on-screen TV-guide interface make time shifting infinitely more convenient, but it encourages you to view TV programs whenever you please–and to skip the commercials, which is far easier to do on a DVR than a VCR.
I don’t care for the word “empowerment,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe what it feels like to use a DVR for the first time. I wrote the other day about how CBS’s decision to scrap The Reagans was really a new-media story that demonstrated the declining ability of Big Media to unilaterally shape the cultural conversation. Digital video recording is not a new medium per se, merely a technology, but it does have a quintessential new-media effect: it gives the viewer greater power to control the way he experiences network TV. In that sense, you might compare it to the way bloggers use links to cherry-pick the contents of Big Media Web sites, reshaping them into new on-line information packages over which the original publishers have no control–save by shifting to subscription-only access models, and thus taking themselves out of the new-media loop altogether. It’s an impossible choice: do you surrender control to the consumer, or do you walk away from the possibility of reaching younger viewers who are already deserting Big Media in droves?
The more you think about it, the more clearly you’ll see how hard it is to choose between these alternatives, not only in this context but in others as well. One of the Big Media publications for which I write, The Wall Street Journal, charges for on-line access to most of its daily contents. From the paper’s point of view, this model “works”: the Journal Web site turns a profit. From my point of view, however, it doesn’t work. Why? Because no one on the Web can link to my Friday drama columns, meaning that they don’t have nearly as significant a presence in the buzz-generating blogosphere as do, say, Ben Brantley’s theater reviews for the New York Times. (That’s why I post excerpts on this page first thing each Friday morning, even though I’m well aware that it’s not nearly as convenient as being able to read the whole column on your computer.)
What’s more, this isn’t only a problem for me. In my experience, most people out in the larger world of art and culture aren’t aware that the Journal runs any pieces about the arts, much less that it covers them regularly and well. For this reason, I’ve suggested that the paper consider posting all of its fine-arts coverage on its free Opinion Journal Web site, which now carries only one arts-related story each day. So far, the powers-that-be haven’t budged, and I understand why, though I’m still trying….
But I’ve wandered far afield from the tale of my new cable box, on which I have so far recorded five movies and three episodes of What’s My Line?, the wonderful old black-and-white game show which the Game Show Network runs in the middle of the night. (The box will store 35 hours’ worth of programming.) I’ve already watched a few shows in my spare time, such as it is. No doubt some will get watched and most of the rest erased, that being the way time shifting works. What I haven’t done since the box arrived is watch any TV shows in real time–nor have I seen a single commercial. In effect, I have replaced the existing TV networks with a homemade video-on-demand system on which I can watch what I want, when I want.
I wonder whether the people who run CBS, NBC and ABC realize that by doing so, I and my fellow DVR users have brought an end to the world as they know it? Probably not–but they will.