Nothing says trouble like a free software "upgrade." There's a reason why the new version of Apple's operating system costs $150 while the iTunes upgrade is free-the OS software could conceivably improve the functioning of your computer while last year's iTunes upgrade "fixed" the "problem" that allowed you to easily move music tracks from your iPod to your computer.
In the same vein, the newest version of TiVo software is as much an upgrade as a fifth-floor walk-up is a "cozy loft" with a "mandatory exercise amenity." According to the Washington Post, lucky TiVo service subscribers will at last have the ability to send their personal information to advertisers whose products they find intriguing so that the shills can send them brochures and other forms of targeted marketing. Even the fools who choose not to avail themselves of this convenient service will soon receive snazzy logos and advertising "tags" popping up as they fast-forward through the ads. It warms the cockles of my heart that I've lived to see the day when even TiVo users don't have to be deprived of advertising-I've always thought that the only real downside to TiVo was how easy it was to avoid commercials.
The newest version of TiVo software is as much an upgrade as a fifth-floor walk-up is a "cozy loft" with a "mandatory exercise amenity."
The most incredible thing about all of this is that the TiVo people actually seem to think it will work. On the one hand, I'm sympathetic to them-according to this Associated Press article, TiVo hasn't turned a profit in all of its eight years. But then on the other hand, what the fuck? Just getting the box in your house will set you back a couple of hundred bucks and then the service is another $12.95 a month. Being asked to pay $12.95 a month and still not be allowed to ignore the ads-particularly when one can lease a box from the cable company for $9 a month-seems a little bit outrageous. TiVo's position seems to be that their service is something that customers can opt in or out of; users already have the option of downloading long-form commercials they find to be of interest (mostly car and movie promos), a feature reportedly used by 5 to 15 percent of the TiVo citizenry.
That number sounds substantial until you realize that, at present, only 8 percent of US homes have Digital Video Recorder technology of any kind-a Venn-diagram overlap that most certainly hosts a potent combination of rich people and geeks. I'm willing to buy that between five and fifteen percent of rich geek users love their gadgetry enough to watch extended trailers for King Kong, but to apply those numbers to the possibilities of wider markets is like saying Elektra 2 is going to be a smash hit because 5 to 15 percent of the Cylons cruising the COMICON parking lot said they'd consider seeing it.
In the interest of fairness, it's worth looking at a second study of DVR users conducted by Lifetime. It found that 48 percent of married women surveyed say the decision to buy a DVR box was theirs, and 55 percent of these women claimed to be better at using the box than their hubbies. Three-quarters of them prefer the DVR to the VCR because it's easier and more intuitive to use. The study isn't hard science-only 500 women were surveyed; there's no mention of how many of these made up the "married" portion; and I can't imagine they were doing random sampling-but no matter. The really interesting tidbit is that 76 percent of these women said they'd stop fast-forwarding to watch an ad that tickled their fancies. David Brooks, Lifetime's senior VP of research, summarized the findings in the article thusly, "DVRs give [women] a mechanism to find commercials that are relevant, and that's a big message. It's not that people don't want commercials, it's irrelevant interruptions that turn them off."
It doesn't seem to occur to any of these people that folks willing to pay for TiVo might be hoping to cut down on the amount of brainwashing in their media diets.
Setting aside the rather icky assumption that seems to underpin the article-that women are too dumb to use electronics-one is left with an even ickier conclusion: that this TiVo "upgrade" is the start of something much, much worse. No one seems to be able to talk about DVRs without talking about how TiVo and its competitors should be shoving more advertising down our throats. It doesn't seem to occur to any of these people that folks willing to pay for TiVo might be hoping to cut down on the amount of brainwashing in their media diets. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that these TiVo people went to the same business school as the marketing geniuses behind the revolting juggernaut of advertising that now precedes every movie at the theatre.
It's true that most people will learn to jump through whatever idiotic advertorial hoops are put in their path to get to the entertainment they desire. It's true that the voracious appetite of our culture's marketing machine will never be sated. It's also true that the proposed advertising models for TiVo are not all that bad. It's just that only a company of tone-deaf windbags would risk alienating their core of geek and early-adopter supporters by telling them they can't be in full control of their own technology.
Take note, TiVo. Nothing's worse for business than pissed-off geeks-they will come back and bite you in the ass, hard. Many before you have learned that lesson the hard way and if Apple doesn't stop caving in to the RIAA, I suspect they'll get some deserts too. Don't make me get the Ghost of Business-Fuck-Ups Past in here, TiVo-It's not too late to mend your ways. Repent!
Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn't get what the big deal is about The OC. No offence.