Reflections on TiVo

By Buell, John | The Humanist, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Reflections on TiVo


Buell, John, The Humanist


I pride myself on not being caught up in consumer culture. I went five years between computers. I reluctantly "upgraded" only after several newspapers I read online could no longer be accessed with my primitive browser. I do enjoy sports in the commercial media, especially tennis, baseball, and basketball. Nonetheless, I have always reasoned that I can escape the temptation of the products offered even if I must endure the offenses to intellect and sensibility that advertising routinely inflicts. But my quiet confidence was shaken recently when I saw an ad that inspired a set of powerful fantasies I could hardly resist.

The product to which I allude is the personal video recorder (PVR), marketed most heavily under the trade name TiVo. TiVo apparently uses a hard disk much like a computer's. One can program it to record a show and then sit down to view it a few minutes after the show has started. TiVo continues to record even as the viewer watches. When ads begin, one can rapidly fast forward past them. TiVo, in short, seems close to being the ultimate VCR--able to tape programming minus the commercials.

As I pondered TiVo, several further thoughts came to mind. Won't major television advertisers--a roster of the most powerful economic institutions in the world--conspire to eliminate this product? Or has capitalism finally produced its ultimate contradiction: not a class but a consumer good that will undermine the future profit prospects of all other corporations?

Unfortunately, such fears or hopes were premature. A recent feature article in Toronto's Globe and Mail provides news I should have anticipated. Fortunately, that news came in time to save me TiVo's purchase price. According to the article, advertising megacorporation Omnicom Group, Inc., of New York has

   formed an alliance with TiVo to explore new forms of PVR-resistant
   advertising. Some say the answer is to make the ads part of the show. The
   Gap, for instance, might outfit the cast of Friends with its new spring
   clothing line. Or a small ad window might pop up during the program.
   Another possibility is that commercials will get shorter. Most people
   probably wouldn't bother skipping a five-second ad.

Commercial television is already moving aggressively in this direction through product placement ads. Another recent column in the Globe and Mail reports comments on a new industry trend--associative marketing. This term means "that the show was invented for advertisers who want to buy product placements as well as commercial spots." The paper reports:

   That's why you are about to see Doritos, Reeboks, and cans of Bud making
   implausibly frequent appearances in the harsh Australian Outback. They
   coughed up $12 million each to get their products in the show.

More ominous for me are the many ways commercial culture's continual incursions degrade sports and their presentation. …

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