TV, cable exex worry

LAS VEGAS — FCC topper Michael Powell loves his TiVo, calling it “god’s machine” at this weekend’s Consumer Electronics Show. But having the nation’s top regulator touting the personal video recorder is likely to chill the hearts of TV and cable execs, who already worry the devices could render ads impotent and piracy rampant.

“TiVo is god in my household. I can’t wait to walk in the house each day to see what it’s recorded for me,” Powell said Friday during a Q&A session with Consumer Electronics Assn. prexy-CEO Michael Shapiro.

The top regulator, a self-avowed “complete gadget freak,” said the device was one of his two favorite holiday gifts (along with Microsoft’s Xbox vidgame console). But his public enthusiasm comes just as TiVo is inextricably bound up in a much bigger debate over what the FCC should do to protect content in the digital age.

Powell is at the heart of that discussion, leading the commission’s effort to balance the concerns of Hollywood, consumer-electronics and computer makers and consumers. TiVo and PVRs from competitors such as SonicBlue allow consumers to fast-forward through or completely skip ads from recorded programming.

Turner Broadcasting topper Jamie Kellner and Viacom’s Mel Karmazin have warned that U.S. TV households will have to start paying for broadcast programming they see today for free if TiVo keeps gaining ground. At CES, speakers said more than 2 million of the machines are now in the market, a still tiny but fast-growing fraction of the country’s TV watchers.

“We give you all this great content for free, and all we ask is for you to watch our commercials,” Karmazin said last year. “If the time comes when you don’t watch our commercials, then we will have to make our money some other way.”

Cable king Brian Roberts of Comcast says a “TiVo in the house is the Napster” of the future.

TiVo also stirs piracy concerns, because the TV industry is worried that hackers will be able to copy and distribute programs stored on the machines. SonicBlue’s latest Replay PVRs are an even bigger concern (and the target of industry lawsuits), because they are connected to the Internet and allow a user to send up to 15 copies of a favored program to other Replay users, exactly what Powell told conference attendees he’d like to do with his TiVo.

“Is there a way to share a program with my sister? She loves TV as much as I do,” Powell said.

Shapiro shot back, to the merriment of the audience, “It’s up to you, actually.”

That’s what has broadcasters and cablers worried.

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