Someone once told me that Xerox instructed employees to protect the company’s brand by never using its moniker as a verb — “Go xerox that, please” — insisting they be careful to say, “Please make a copy on your Xerox copying machine.”TiVo sometimes appears to be drifting toward that kind of sweeping identification — “Don’t want to miss ’24′? Don’t worry, I’ll TiVo it” — perhaps in part because of its cuddly anthropomorphic mascot, the one with an “o” for an eye. Yet despite the fact that the little device has produced nigh-messianic zealotry among its owners, dark clouds hover on the horizon as to whether TiVo can sustain the benefits of their loyalty. TiVo has a terrific product and catchy slogan (“TV Your Way”), but the perception lingers that it could be the latest pioneer to stake out the land only to get run over once the assembled settlers arrive. With major cable operators and satellite services pushing their own versions of a digital video recorder (or DVR), the assumption is that as leviathans like Comcast and News Corp. mobilize in a battle for market share, TiVo could wind up squashed like a bug. Television has a way of repeating itself, and TiVo’s plight offers faint echoes of Philo T. Farnsworth — the medium’s ostensible creator, who never fully shared in the fruits of his invention. Notably, “The West Wing’s” Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme are prepping a movie about Farnsworth, which should bring attention to his story and prove that he could speak fast while walking. Faced with a fuzzy picture, the sole point of clarity is that there will be plenty more TiVo-like devices around in the not-too-distant future, with price barriers virtually evaporating in the frenzy to woo subscribers. Dish Networks, for example, is touting a package that makes a DVR available free other than a $5 monthly service charge. With about 1.5 million boxes in circulation, TiVo controls roughly 40% of the existing DVR market. That means some form of the doodad reaches about 3% of U.S. homes, leaving enormous room for growth. TiVo also possesses no shortage of fans that see the technology as nothing less than revolutionary. Richard Frank, now chairman of talent-management company the Firm, tells a story about asking his young granddaughter to name her favorite network. “TiVo,” she said. “It’s where all my shows are.” So while the future of DVRs in general is undoubtedly bright, TiVo could be the odd box out — a trailblazer, a la Farnsworth, that winds up with a tire track up its spine. This DVR invasion is also boot-quaking time for ad-supported television, at least until they figure out how to profit from it. As a cautionary note, consider the aforementioned “West Wing,” which, according to TiVo’s creepy ability to monitor viewing habits, retains only 39% of its audience during the interminable commercial pods in TiVo homes. (Fox’s “24″ registered at 50%, despite the helpful clock that lets you know when to stop zapping.) Not surprisingly, the TiVo folks paint a somewhat less dour portrait of their prospects, recently pitching advertisers on the array of dazzling options that await them “in a TiVo World.” TiVo’s grand plans include providing ratings for commercials (something for which advertisers have been clamoring), transacting “couch commerce” — Like that top Beyonce’s wearing? Click here to order (the top, not her) NOW! — and ads targeted by geography or even individual viewing behavior. As for cable operators shoving TiVo aside, company prexy Martin Yudkovitz, says, “We feel we’re in very, very healthy shape, but there’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace as to who’s going to be supplying what.” Ya think? Yudkovitz described TiVo as “the Google of TV” — a tool that “searches and finds the programs you’re interested in,” whether it’s a “season pass” that automatically records favorite shows or “wish lists” that, say, identify every Arnold Schwarzenegger movie before he traded in his commando fatigues for a blazer. In terms of the threat from clones and competitors, Yudkovitz argues that TiVo enjoys a big head start, running “2½ generations ahead” in terms of technology. Maybe so, and count me among the satisfied customers. Still, TiVo finds itself in an interesting spot — leading a host of pursuers weighed down only by their deep pockets. In a race like this, my guess is staying out front hinges on nobody throwing any unforeseen obstacles into its path, because there’s not much margin of error for a little guy without arms. SWING AND A MISS: In sports, it’s sometimes hard to see the out-of-bounds lines anymore — a conundrum that Sony and Major League Baseball recently discovered. Although Sony hoped to creatively promote “Spider-Man 2,” it turns out that sticky stuff the studio stepped in wasn’t webbing — as plans to plaster the Spidey logo on bases and pitching mounds yielded enough of a backlash to cause both parties to bail out. Brazen as the Spider-Man tie-in was, baseball can be forgiven for assuming it would sail through as cleanly as a Randy Johnson fastball. Team owners and networks have gotten away with murder squeezing advertising into every break in the action, down to Fox super-imposing green-screen ads for its programs into World Series telecasts. Similarly, college bowl games spray sponsor logos across the 50-yard line, and NBA ads ominously say to “Play like there’s no tomorrow” — a promo for the upcoming Fox film “The Day After Tomorrow,” without so much as a burp of protest. In that context, score this brush-back pitch as one small step for fans, whose nerve endings apparently haven’t been rendered completely numb yet — “yet” being the operative word. Because based on what I can see from up in the cheap seats, any paying customer that doesn’t want to be buffeted by sponsorships is going to have less and less reason to cheer.
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