How to empower a couch potato

Can ReplayTV really revolutionize television watching? Well, it can do neat stuff like rewind live broadcasts.

Published September 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Thanks to the world's coolest new electronic gizmo, three nights ago I watched a commercial for skin care products five times -- plus twice more in reverse. I watched two song and dance numbers from a Mel Brooks movie on late night TV, as the rest of the movie was being recorded for my viewing pleasure. And, most importantly, I discovered that while the future of television is ready for me, I am not ready for it.

The gadget involved in my investigations into the wonderland of high-tech television is a black box called ReplayTV. The model I got retails for $899. Replay is one of two new digital video recorders -- the other is called Tivo -- that hit electronics stores in April. I first heard about Tivo more than a year ago, when it was still in its early stages of development, and I had been looking forward to the introduction of this new bit of electronic wizardry ever since.

In essence, these new recorders capture television programs on a big hard drive as they are being broadcast. Pause the program, fix yourself a snack, take it up where you left off. With about three clicks of the remote control, you can set it to record "M*A*S*H" reruns every night into eternity. With a few more clicks, you can set up the thing to record every movie starring Kevin Bacon. And, every night, your Replay unit downloads a comprehensive programming guide through the phone line so that you can tell it what you want it to record.

I've been telling everyone I know about these amazing features, but they are not all equally impressed.

A few days ago a friend came over and his eye fell to scanning the sleek Replay box.

"How's your new video recorder working out?" he asked.

I told him it was great, and started enumerating all the cool things it can do.

"So what kind of tapes does it use?" he asked.

"It doesn't actually use tapes."

"Oh, I see," he said, "The tapes aren't out yet."

"No," I said, "It doesn't actually use tapes. It just has a big hard drive that records 14 hours of programming."

"Oh." he said.

We left it at that. I meant to tell him that the sleek black box is a bigger innovation than the video cassette recorder, bigger than cable, bigger even than the remote control. But I figured that might be a little more than he wanted to know, given that he was still stuck on the idea of the missing tapes.

The concept behind Replay is vastly ambitious. What is at stake is nothing less than the transformation of today's couch potato into tomorrow's empowered couch potato.

Says Anthony Wood, the chief executive of ReplayTV, "Our vision is that, five to 10 years from now, everyone will be watching television off a hard drive. Real-time television will go away."

In Wood's future, instead of rushing to finish Sunday dinner in time for "The Simpsons," viewers will simply set their set-top boxes to record the show and watch it at their leisure. But that's just the start. On a cable or satellite system, they might get a daily selection of dozens of pay-per-view movies, broadcast at odd times of the night, recorded to be watched at their leisure, and paid for through Replay, which will process transactions through the phone line. They will be able to record a whole week's or month's worth of programming and watch it whenever they want. With the telephone hook-up, they will be able to buy products from television commercials with a few clicks, in much the way that they can make purchases through the Internet now.

This is a vision that has captured the imagination of the television world at the highest levels. According to Wood, when the Walt Disney Company was considering whether to invest in Replay, he dealt directly with Michael Eisner, the head of Disney and almost certainly the most powerful person in today's media world. Disney, which owns the ABC television network, did invest in Replay, and in competitor Tivo, too. NBC also jumped on board. CBS has taken a stake in Tivo, and most of the big cable and consumer electronics companies are placing bets on the new technology.

People like Eisner are interested in Replay because it offers to solve, in a roundabout way, what has been the biggest riddle in television: how to deliver something akin to "video on demand," the one service that television viewers have for years told focus moderators they want, and that the television broadcasters and cable companies have never had the technology to provide. You would think the networks wouldn't be keen on a technology that effectively encourages viewers to skip commercials, but Replay's ability to turn the TV into a money-collecting engine has big appeal to broadcasters.

That, at any rate, is the ambition. Replay's advertising uses the slogan "Welcome to the world of personal television." I like it. I have never had a very personal relationship with television, and I'd love to develop one. Problem is, I'm not ready for this kind of empowerment.

I tend to do most of my television watching late at night, flipping to whatever happens to be the most appealing program in the late-night lineup. It so happens that by the time my roommate, Ben, and I have plugged the Replay unit into Ben's television, it's 1:30 in the morning and the only thing on TV that's the least bit interesting is "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," a 1993 movie that is clearly one of the lesser works of Mel Brooks.

It is also a lousy movie on which to try out the new gadget. Even without the ability to reverse and fast forward it's easy to get confused about what's happening. With Replay, it's worse. Ben and I find ourselves watching Robin Hood's merry gang of hoodlums breaking into song in a stage-set forest, and then try to shoot back a couple of minutes and somehow it goes right back to another scene of the same merry gang going through the motions of a light opera. Is this the same scene? That means shooting back a little further, and verifying that the background of this scene lacks the porta-potties that were the key comic fixture of the last. So it's a different scene. By this time, however, the thread of the narrative has been completely lost. We try pressing the "Live" button to go back to the live show -- but here, again, there's a gaggle of actors in interchangeable green costumes performing their latest bit of light opera against the same green background.

Finally we settle on playing with the skin-care commercial. Ben notices that one of the actresses in the swimming pool looks like a high school classmate. It's hard to be sure, though, because she's only on for a couple of seconds. The commercial is manageably small, so we try to pause the recorder on a still image of her face.

Zip, zap, zap, zap.

There, right there!

Zap, zip.

Drats. Missed it again.

There are so many things that Ben and I can do with our demo model of the Replay box that you might well find it mind-boggling that we should spend our time fast-forwarding and reversing through a commercial for a skin-care product whose name I can't even remember. But that, sadly, is the case.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. ReplayTV isn't designed to make it easy to stop on a particular frame. But it's also fair to say that it's not designed for people like me to waste their time scanning commercials on the off-chance that they might star someone's high school classmate.

The day after Ben and I tried out the Replay box, Replay's Wood called me and we talked about Moore's Law. Moore's Law is the technology rule of thumb that says that computer power doubles every 18 months.

"Hard drive capacity is increasing even faster than Moore's Law would predict," says Wood. "Right now, Replay records up to 30 hours [on the highest-end model, which costs $1,500]. Soon we'll be up to 500 or 1,000 hours."

A thousand hours is an awful lot of recording time -- more than enough to record and reshuffle a whole week's worth of programming from all four major networks. Wood says that Replay will soon support a "Replay Zone" service, with tailored channels of highlighted programming. A "Bogart Zone" (the example is mine, not Wood's), for instance, could include all the Bogart films to be broadcast in a week, capturing them for later viewing -- and maybe also include all the James Cagney movies to boot. If the Replay and Tivo model works, television broadcasters will stream hours of programming specially tailored to Replay's zones.

This is what, in the parlance of the television world, is called "convergence." The endgame is that Replay or Tivo or a box very much like these sits on top of the living room TV, creating the perfect fusion of the television and the computer. No more flipping channels in this future, just a vast array of entertainment offerings, neatly zoned, described and cataloged, a veritable monument to choice and convenience.

Maybe when that happens I'll know what to do with the new technology. Perhaps when I can record not just a few hours of television but a whole week's worth, when just-released movies are streaming into my bedroom, I'll be grateful. For now, however, even the limited options of the new box leave me a little befuddled. I am so used to missing my favorite shows that I am not sure I would want to have it any other way.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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