The Box That Rocks

Breaking up with your VCR is hard. Tivo makes it easy.

There’s a little black box in my bedroom that gives me sex whenever I want it.

“Sex and the City,” that is.

My new best friend, in case you haven’t been keeping tabs on the digital revolution, is called Tivo. It’s a relatively new little device that lets couch spuds effortlessly record anything on television, from “Everybody Loves Raymond” to “The Iron Chef,” with just a push of a button. No tapes, no timers, no clock blinking 12:00 in perpetuity.

Tivo can do a few other neat tricks, too.

There’s an incredibly detailed, easy-to-use on-screen program listings function that makes TV Guide obsolete. Tivo also lets you literally pause live TV, so if an old college bud happens to call just as Buffy’s about to kick some vampire booty, you don’t have choose between your friend and Sarah Michelle Gellar. And another button gives you the option of creating your own instant replay (a particularly useful feature when watching Ms. Gellar in action.)

So what makes Tivo more than a VCR on steriods? The sucker’s got a brain.

Watch NBC’s weekly Thursday dose of “Friends” a couple of times, and Tivo will start recording syndicated repeats of the show– even though you never asked it to. Tell Tivo to record “Top Gun,” and you might come home one night to find digital copies of several other Tom Cruise pics available for viewing (“Cocktail,” anyone?)

If you believe the hype on Tivo and other similar machines known collectively as personal video recorders, Silicon Valley has come up with a technology that’s going to change the face of network television as we know it.

Now that there’s a machine that knows exactly what you want to watch, and lets you watch it whenever you want, the whole concept of a primetime “schedule” suddenly seems quaint. And because Tivo’s fast-forward function lets a viewer effortlessly skip through commercials, McDonald’s may soon think twice about shelling out $400,000 for a 30-second spot on “NYPD Blue”: Who knows if anyone’s even watching their ad?

No wonder CBS execs winced when Tivo started running a commerical in which a network exec is seen being tossed out a window. The truth hurts.

I’ve been test driving a unit for the last three months, and despite my early skepticism, it’s hard to deny the truly revolutionary potential behind Tivo.

Already, my VCR has started sprouting cobwebs. Unless there’s a TV event worth preserving for the ages (like the “Survivor” season finale), it’s much easier to simply Tivo everything. I’ve been hitting Blockbuster a lot less, too, since Tivo is always managing to dig up a cool indie feature playing on Sundance Channel at 3:15 in the morning.

Tivo’s also helped manage my TV addictions. In the past, keeping up with MTV’s “The Real World” meant spending an entire Saturday afternoon on the couch watching one of the web’s endless marathons of the (sorta) real life soap. Now, I’ve got what Tivo calls a “Season Pass” — a new episode is added to my black box every Tuesday night, letting me get “Real” whenever I want.

The bottom line: I’m watching a lot more TV since Tivo arrived, yet I feel less a slave to the medium than ever.

And that’s why the suits on Network Row are worried.

Even though all the nets have invested in Tivo (or a similar product called Replay), they realize that their zombie-like hold on the American public is about to come to an end.

Audience erosion has already resulted in dramatically diminished ratings for most network programs. With Tivo making it easier than ever to timeshift primetime or discover obscure cable programs, the Big Four’s ability to control what and when viewers watch is threatened further.

The good news for network execs is that people still crave shared experiences– look no further than the record ratings for last summer’s “Survivor” finale. Half the fun of watching that program was knowing you’d be discussing it with friends and co-workers for the next week. To do that, you needed to watch it with other people (or at the same time as everybody else.)

It’s also questionable whether viewers will simply stop watching commercials simply because Tivo lets them fast forward through the annoying ads. VCRs have been letting people do that trick for decades, yet network ad sales have never been stronger.

And let’s face it: People are lazy. We like the idea of having clearly branded networks delivering free dramas and comedies to us at preordained times. We want to plop down on the couch and let the glorious glow from our TV sets transport us out of our mundane existences in 30-minute intervals.

Hell, I consider myself an O.G. (original gearhead) from way back, but there’s no way I’m going to Tivo all my favorite programs simply to avoid watching commericals. As it is, I don’t always remember to speed through the ads when I’m watching a program I recorded by Tivo.

There’s no doubt the current network model of television is in for huge changes. Tivo is one of the many reasons why.

But even though I love my new little black box, television remains a medium designed to let people escape. As long as that’s true — and as long as there are more shows like “The Practice” and less like “Yes, Dear” — network television should continue to do just fine.

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