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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Digital videos hard to shift
Whatever happened to the personal video recorder?
Two years ago this clever device, which records television programmes not on tape but on a hard disc, was going to change the whole way we watched TV - and destroy the economic basis of commercial television.
The PVR allows you to pause live TV, record programmes with a simple touch of a button, watch the start of a programme you've selected even while the end is still being recorded, and assemble every episode of Coronation Street or The Simpsons in a week, or a whole series of 24, no matter which channel they are transmitted on, for binge viewing sessions.
The PVR, we were told, meant the death of traditional channels, since viewers could become their own schedulers.
It could have killed off traditional television advertising too - because the technology allows viewers to zip past commercials without ever watching them.
Yet only around 60,000 people in the UK have PVRs. even in the US, where they were first developed, there are thought to be fewer than 500,000. The promised PVR revolution still seems a long way off.
A Tivo, the original PVR, now marketed by a number of manufacturers, will cost you about £229, but you can get a Thomson PVR for abotu £150; Sky charges £10 a month additional rental to Sky Plus subscribers.
The other reason is complexity. PVRs do lots of different things but seem to have no single "killer application". It makes them hard to market.
Brian Sullivan, Nick James's boss, says Sky's research shows PVRs have higher satisfaction levels than any new product the company has ever launched.
But describing what the PVR does in a single sentence to people who have never seen one is almost impossible.
"It pretty much means you never have to miss your favourite programme again," is the best Sullivan himself can do.
The media consultancy Decipher carried out its own research in 20 households with PVRs. Nigel Walley of Decipher says people used them in at least ten different ways.
They use them for instance for time-shifting programmes, perhaps by only a few minutes, recording Holby City or EastEnders to watch later so as not to interrupt the kids' bath time.
They use them to "bookmark" a particular programme - so they never have to worry about missing ER - or assemble all the episodes of big "appointment to view" programmes like The Forsyte Saga or Band of Brothers to watch in a binge viewing session.
Indeed, most people with PVRs claim that they have completely changed the way they watch television: Decipher's research suggested more than half of all viewing was not to live programmes but to programmes recorded on the PVR memory.
But Nigel Walley says the notion that the PVR somehow makes traditional broadcast television - and traditional channels - redundant is a mistake.
The PVR can't function without the broadcast programme stream; it relies on channels to introduce and promote new programmes and new formats.
The PVR does represent a bigger threat to advertising - but it need not be fatal. Sky claims US research shows that almost three-quarters of PVR users sometimes use the box to replay favourite ads.
Rupert Howell, a former president of the advertising agencies' trade association, the IPA, acknowledges there's a possible problem but says the answer is to make better commercials, which are more engaging and more entertaining.
Broadcasters must hope he's right, because if viewers routinely skip commercials advertisers will be reluctant to pay for them, and if they refuse there'll be no money to make the programmes.
Indeed Jamie Kellner, head of Turner Broadcasting in the US, warned earlier this year: "Skipping commercials is theft. Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots.
Kellner's ire was directed especially at a device called the Replay TV 4000, marketed in the US by a company called Sonic Blue, which incorporates a button allowing you to leap forward exactly 30 seconds.
PVRs in the UK don't yet have such a button - no doubt partly because Sky, which markets many of them, is itself a broadcaster with an important revenue stream from advertising.
There are other issues. The big Hollywood studios are alarmed at the potential for "file-sharing" - recording programmes and then sending them to friends with PVRs - which they see as a form of piracy which damages the interests of rights holders.
And the current generation of PVRs don't work with interactive television services - a problem for the BBC, which is marketing interactivity as one of the great advantages of the digital television world of which PVRs are also part.
But given the slow pace at which PVRs are entering the market, it may be some time before any of these issues need really concern either broadcasters or viewers.
A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.
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