‘Sex’ hot for TiVo

Techie toy gives TW AOL chills

Talk about anti-synergy.

AOL Time Warner has been one of loudest Cassandras in sounding the alarm over the potentially disastrous effects of TiVo on the economic foundation of the ad-supported broadcasting and basic-cable business.

But its HBO division next June 29 will run an episode of “Sex and the City” in which Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) clearly gets more pleasure out of her TiVo than she does out of everything else in her life, including sex.

“It a classic case of creative license going up against corporate strategy,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for the Katz TV Group.

Since untold numbers of viewers take their cultural cues from the characters on “Sex and the City,” people armed with credit cards could be lining up at their local TiVo retailer the week after the telecast.

In March 2001, shares in TiVo climbed by 26% on the strength of a Mike Wallace piece on “60 Minutes” extolling the virtues of the personal video recorder.

And Brody Keast , senior VP and general manager of TiVo’s service business, said that when “The Oprah Winfrey Show” featured a seven-minute how-to segment on TiVo as part of a “Best of the Best” episode two months ago, “we reached a peak in sales that we’d never seen before over the next two weeks. Oprah owns a TiVo, and she acted like a pitchwoman for the product.”

The “Sex and the City” episode might not generate quite such a response because HBO reaches less than a third of U.S. homes, compared to the 99% coverage for “60 Minutes” and “Oprah.”

And Stacey Lynn Koerner , executive VP of Initiative Media, said that subscribers to HBO “are likely to be more savvy about TiVo than the majority of Americans who are not aware of it.”

Keast said the episode “won’t result in immediate sales. But it may drive traffic to the TiVo web site, where people will seek out more information.”

From the AOL Time Warner corporate standpoint, every time someone buys a TiVo box, Madison Avenue’s anxiety escalates because TiVo makes people expert at eliminating or avoiding pesky commercials.

Ads for beer and soap suds may be annoying to the viewer, but for a broadcast network or a TV station they represent the sole source of revenue. A cable network harvests a strapping two thirds of its income from blurbs, on average, pocketing the other third from cable-system license fees.

Even though the stakes are high, a spokeswoman for AOL TW said the company wouldn’t dream of squelching an episode of “Sex and the City” that might be inimical to AOL TW’s business model. “We keep a church-state separation” between the corporate interest and the creative instinct, she said.

But is AOL TW correct in worrying that there’ll be a mass exodus of advertisers from broadcast TV and basic cable over the next few years, fleeing from TiVo-empowered viewers as they nuke the commercials with their remote controls?

Bob Thompson, author and professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse U., said he’s not so sure.

First of all, Thompson said, “some of the commercials are so well made that people like to watch them. During the Super Bowl, the debut of dozens of fresh spots gets more coverage from the media than the game itself. People stay on their couches throughout the commercial breaks and go to the bathroom during the game.”

Also, most TiVo boxes still require the viewer to fast-forward through commercials, just as they do with a prerecorded episode of “CSI” on their VCRs. “I’m convinced,” Thompson said, “that people absorb more of a commercial that they’re fast-forwarding because they have to keep watching to see when the spot ends and the program begins.”

(Nicole LaPorte and Pamela McClintock contributed to this story.)

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