Imagine your television set and the way you have viewed TV shows since you were a kid. Now forget about it.
America's favorite unofficial pastime--passively watching television programs broadcast to living rooms--is becoming obsolete. Previously couch-bound viewers are venturing into the realm of custom TV, finding exactly what they want to watch, whenever they want it, wherever they happen to be.
The trend began almost imperceptibly a few years ago with digital video recording services like TiVo. Today, cable leader Comcast and other industry giants are preparing for a day when all shows will be available to anyone at any time, bypassing the need for recorders altogether.
The ramifications of this burgeoning trend are almost unfathomable. Broadcast and cable networks, already losing viewers to games and other mediums, have been forced to contemplate the demise of the universal "prime time" concept. Commercials could give way to product placements and other advertising alternatives that can't be fast-forwarded into oblivion.
Beyond the economics, the most important changes will be felt at home. People can spend less time channel surfing and thus more time with their families. And rather than being force-fed inane "reality" shows or mass-media stereotypes, viewers can at least theoretically find more enlightening programming with file-swapping networks like BitTorrent and other technologies already available.
That's what David Zatz discovered when he was looking for some way to watch his favorite Comedy Central program, "Chappelle's Show," which airs past his bedtime. Zatz figured out that he could use his TiVo box and some commercial software to store the show on a memory card, then watch it on his Dell Axim handheld during
the morning subway commute through Washington, D.C. "Now I'm not stuck in front of the TV all the time," said Zatz, a network administrator in Rockville, Md., who wakes up before dawn to get to his job in Arlington, Va.
Many others are following his lead. About 8 percent of U.S. households have DVRs, according to research firm GartnerG2, but in five years, half of all homes with TVs are expected to have the recording devices. Comcast and other cable operators are shipping TV set-top boxes with built-in hard drives and charging for TiVo-like services. Microsoft has made the technology one of the key features in its Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system.
Perhaps the most surprising contributors of all are advertisers, which have gone so far as to take court action against recording services in previous years. David Simon, who felt that legal wrath as an executive at the defunct recording service RecordTV.com, knows why: "If companies don't offer what consumers want, people will just find a way to do it on their own."