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May 4, 2004

A public radio commentary

More people replayed Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl than any other event in television history. The event, though, also gave us a glimpse of how technology might just dramatically alter television, a business that hasn't changed in sixty years.

TV operates with the same financial model it did in the 1940s. The Networks produce shows that they hope will attract millions of viewers, and the advertisers hope that a fraction of those who watch will buy their wares. They hedge their bets a bit by guessing, for example, that anyone who watches the Super Bowl is likely to be a beer drinker, and so they advertise on that show hoping to grab the attention of the few who really want to know about beer. In our digital age this is all pretty crude.

Many who watched the now infamous halftime Super Bowl show used something called TiVo. A TiVo consists of black box attached to your TV set, about the size of a VCR. It doesn't use video tape, but records onto a giant hard disk like that in your computer. At first it seems like an improved VCR, but it's potentially much, much more.

Because it's digital the recorded programs can be viewed in any order, unlike on a video tape. With a TiVo you can also put a show on pause when watching it live, and return to it without missing a thing. And if you start watching 15 minutes into a program you can skip through all the commercials. This makes it sound like a souped up VCR, but there is an additional cable out of that TiVo black box that really promises change: A phone line. Every action that you take with a TiVo is relayed to the company's computer.

There lies the promise to revolutionize TV. TiVo's computer stores a viewer's every whim, allowing the company to know the viewer better than he or she knows themself. So, it could suggest programs, including those from the past because with TiVo every show ever broadcast competes against every other show. In theory a viewer could create his own private television channel all stored on his TiVo.

The potential changes go even deeper: Because it monitor's viewing habits a TiVo box can determine when a comedian's monologue died with an audience, prompting them to tune out, or when a drama got too dull for a viewer. This offers the promise that script writers and producers can fine tune their shows for maximum appeal. And advertisers might be able to narrowcast commercials made specifically for a particular type of viewer.

All this is one big if: TiVo must first succeed. The company has only about a million subscribers out of the more than 100 million television homes in American, plus they have yet to even make a profit.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises