Take total control of your television

The imminent arrival of digital recording systems like the TiVo are about to change the way we view TV for ever. That's good news for couch potatoes, but bad news for the industry.
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The television industry, just like the music industry, has begun rubbing its eyes blearily like a hotel guest in an unfamiliar city, as it awakes to the realisation that digitisation is changing the game completely. That insistent buzzing noise in executives' ears is the noise of their work turning into bits, and the whole game changing as they watch.

The television industry, just like the music industry, has begun rubbing its eyes blearily like a hotel guest in an unfamiliar city, as it awakes to the realisation that digitisation is changing the game completely. That insistent buzzing noise in executives' ears is the noise of their work turning into bits, and the whole game changing as they watch.

The latest sign of this in the UK was the launch last week of the TiVo, a digital system which treats a TV signal as just another stream of bits to be stored and pulled off a hard disk as required. That means you can be watching a live programme, pause it, rewind, slow-mo, and then continue where you left off - effectively time-shifting your live viewing.

TiVo also offers (for a subscription of £10 per month) a software engine which can learn from your instructions what sort of programmes you like and what you hate, and learn to suggest things that you would like to watch or even record them for you without your explicit instruction.

It is, in fact, much more than a digital video recorder (and, joy of joys, there's no tape). It's more like something that kills off the whole job of the TV scheduler; you might never know, or care, what channel you're actually watching.

Similarly, HomeChoice, an ADSL-based system, is offering people in London (and eventually the rest of the country) the chance to watch whatever programmes they want, generally on a pay-per-view basis - although there are many channels, such as news, which are available for free over the system.

As Simon Hochhauser, founder and chief executive of HomeChoice, said last week as the system was launched in London: "The days of being tied to TV schedules that dictate programme times... could be over."

That applies in spades, given that this week Pace, which makes set-top boxes, will announce "XTV", a digital set-top box with the functionality of TiVo added.

Certainly, there is demand for that. HomeChoice's research found that more than 40 per cent of people "feel guilty about watching TV they hadn't intended to" and about the same number feel they would have more spare time if they could plan their own viewing schedule. Along with everything else in our lives, people want control. TV is just the latest to feel how digital technology makes this happen.

Potentially, this is a big headache for many people in the TV industry. Michael Grade, former head of Channel 4, was justly famous in the Eighties for his talent at scheduling an evening of programmes that maximised audiences: top-rating programmes would be followed by intriguing ones which held people, and then by more popular ones that held the numbers up. The BBC and ITV regularly scrap over every tenth of a percentage point of viewing share. And advertisers watch that pattern closely to see when people are watching.

But if you might be watching any programme from earlier in the day at the time when the schedulers would like you to be "following on" from Friends, how do the advertisers plan what to place? Sky, which is doing the marketing, sales and billing for TiVo in the UK, found in its research that the people keenest on the box are those who don't have satellite or cable, just the five terrestrial channels. As one of those people, I know the sinking feeling when there's absolutely nothing on, intensified by the knowledge that there was something good on in the afternoon, but I was working. (The VCR? Sabotaged by our toddler, who infests it with pre-recorded videos.) I'd like to watch The Simpsons at 9.30pm on Friday after Friends - but the schedulers don't offer me that. With TiVo, I can.

As with any digital offering, the flexibility that software generates makes it addictive. "Once you get TiVo, then you really want it everywhere," said Ted Malone, the company's director of marketing evelopment. "I really wanted it in my hotel room the other night." But while Homechoice holds all its digitised programmes in its own servers at its company, TiVo and XTV are potentially more interesting because the machines that do the digitisation are in the consumers' homes.

At the heart of TiVo is a huge hard disk, of about 20 gigabytes. It runs the Linux open-source operating system, and essentially takes the analog input from your aerial, converts that into a digital stream and saves that on to the hard disk. (It contains a PowerPC 50Mhz processor and a built-in modem/IDE interface card, an Mpeg encoder and decoder chips and a TV tuner). The picture that is fed to your TV set is produced by reading the hard disk and converting that digital stream back into an analog output. In essence, it's the same as the way that music gets turned into digital CDs - or MP3s - and then back into sound.

In fact, the analogy with MP3s is closer, since you can choose the video quality the TiVo saves at; lower quality means you can pack more recordings on to the disk, offering up to 40 hours at the lowest quality (which would probably be like slow-speed VHS, though TiVo didn't offer to demonstrate this at its launch last week).

The really smart aspect, of course, is the ability to learn what programmes you like, via an electronic programme guide (EPG). If you like ER, Where the Heart Is and Peak Practice, then tell the machine (with a "thumbs up" measure via the remote) and it'll record those for you - and likely suggest that you might want to watch Cardiac Arrest and Chicago Hope, too, if they're showing on any of the channels you get.

For that, you would need to pay the £10 monthly subscription - which TiVo says is needed to pay for things like the EPG, and the freephone call that the TiVo will make every night to the online EPG. Howard Look, TiVo's vice-president of engineering, who was formerly at Silicon Graphics, was quick to say that this phone call will not collect personal information about your likes and dislikes: "We don't collect any individually addressable data. We aggregate it, anonymously," he said. "Our privacy policy already meets and exceeds the UK and European data privacy requirements."

The phone link does also mean that the TiVo's software can be updated overnight - so that parental control via passwords, a notably missing feature, could be introduced as soon as it's written; as could "PDC", which means that if a programme's start is delayed (say, by football overrunning) then the recording will start when the programme does. Presently, it would miss it, just like a conventional VCR.

Meanwhile, the fact that TiVo has both a hard disk and an operating system set little bells going in hackers' heads in the US, where the box was launched more than a year ago. So far, most of the activity has been focussed on what's possible (adding a second hard drive). When the discussion got particularly frenzied on Slashdot (http://slashdot.org/articles/00/06/22/1238 205.shtml), TiVo's "chief evangelist", Richard Bulwinkle, stepped in to say that TiVo didn't have any comment about folk doing hardware hacks (since TiVo doesn't make the hardware), and to set them straight about their misconceptions on the software. Things quietened down quite a lot after that; though over on the TiVo "hacks" forums (at http://www.avsforum.com/ubbtivo/) there are people who are backing up their entire TiVo hard drives - or even copying bits off on to CD-Roms - using their home computers.

You have to ask yourself: what's the point? (And then you have to ask yourself: how long before there's a TiVo Napster?) But right now, the real power of TiVo, and HomeChoice, and XTV and ReplyTV (another digital VCR, already on sale in America) is the way that they remove the inflexibility of TV programming (and the hassle of getting the video set up right) from your life.

But in return, you have to accept the subscription model - and in this, at least, the TV industry is far ahead of the music industry, which is still insistent on its single-pay, single-usage model. HomeChoice and TiVo are getting people who aren't on satellite or cable used to the idea of paying a fixed monthly fee for the convenience of the digital world.

That echoes what's already going on in the commercial world, where Microsoft and a host of other companies are moving to a business model where you hire the use of software over the Net, but never actually have it on your hard drive. With TiVo, it only sits on your hard drive for a while. Enjoy it while you can.