Tuesday, June 3, 2003

TiVo: The Best Marketing Department Replay Ever Had

TiVo, the company whose digital video recorder (DVR) was praised by FCC Chairman Michael Powell as "God's machine," appears to have sold its soul to the devil. According to today's A.P. wire, TiVo proposes to sell information about its customers' viewing habits to the very advertisers whose annoying ads the devices were intended to help us avoid. Oh wait, did I say "avoid?" I meant almost avoid. For all their ads about the joy of skipping commercials, TiVo is the one DVR manufacturer whose unit does not actually do that. All you can do about a commercial on TiVo is to speed things up. If you were planning on skipping commercials entirely, you'll need Replay instead. Or, if you like satellite TV, there's always the Dish PVR, which I use. No, the "P" in that name wasn't a typo. Everyone in the industry except Dish may call these things DVRs, but Dish calls them PVRs instead, based on the name "personal video recorder." I guess they figured a name like "Dish DVR" would have too much alliteration to be taken seriously.

Anyway, as DVR/PVRs go, I've been using Dish for almost two years now, and I'm very happy with it. My only complaint about the PVR is that the system could be made a little smarter, so as to track shows by name rather than blindly recording whatever starting and ending times you've programmed. Nine times out of ten, that doesn't matter, but once in a while a programming anomaly can come back to bite you. For example, Mrs. Xrlq and I missed the second and final hour of The Practice, that way when we forgot to reprogram it to catch the two-hour season finale. That may be the downside to not having to pay an extra fee for programming as our DVR happily recorded the same one hour segment that would ordinarily have covered the entire show. I don't know if this is an inherent limitation in that unit's technology, or just a programming feature Dish hasn't gotten around to adding yet. I hope it's the latter. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's not a crass, P.T. Barnum move akin to TiVo's deliberate decision to leave the 30-second "ZAP" feature off the menu.

If you're considering any of these devices, I really can't think of any reason to prefer TiVo over Replay, though admittedly I've never used either of them myself. I do know that TiVo's retail prices sound much cheaper than they are, while their competitors' units are priced more honestly. For example, you can buy a TiVo DVR for $249, but plan on spending an additional $299 if you are thinking of actually using it. By contrast, Replay is currently offering its basic DVR for $329, and that includes the programming fees. Similarly, the DishPVR goes for $299 (assuming you actually pay full price rather than wait for the right promotion) and has no associated fees beyond the cost of receiving satellite TV at all.

It may be true that DVRs generically warrant such a superlative moniker as "God's machine." I'm not sure why Chairman Powell saw fit to single out TiVo in particular, however, unless he was trying to convert us all to atheism.

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