- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Digital video recorders (DVRs) don’t capture television programs on clunky videotape like VCRs do. They stockpile your favorite shows digitally, courtesy of the numbers 0 and 1.

That digital formatting has made such products as TiVo and ReplayTV a boon to television addicts, allowing them to record their favorite shows whenever they air and watch one recorded show while the machine records another, among other slick features.

Less obvious, except to those of a technological bent, is that such satellite television providers as Echostar have been delivering DVR-type services for nearly as long as TiVo and its ilk. Now, cable providers like Comcast are gearing up to include DVR features in its set-top boxes, offering the potential to move DVR use into the mainstream.

Tara Dunion, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, says, at their core, DVRs are more like a personal computer than a VCR. The devices store television programming as digital data on a hard drive, not unlike how a computer captures information, Ms. Dunion says.

Picture quality on DVRs, also known as personal video recorders (PVRs), is a far cry from the fuzzy visuals to which VCR users have grown accustomed.

“It depends on your television, … but it’s going to be comparable to DVD quality,” she says. What it won’t look like is high definition television, or HDTV. The DVR technology won’t allow for the devices to reproduce HDTV’s sharp broadcasts.

Some DVRs allow programs to be recorded at a lesser quality, to squeeze more programming hours onto the hard drive. DVRs typically can store anywhere from 30 to 80 hours of programming before exceeding their storage capacity. Some cagey hackers have found ways to transfer recorded programs onto other media, like computers, but manufacturers like TiVo discourage that practice by encrypting video.

Do you like “The Sopranos”? The units, which rely on subscription programming services ranging from $5 to $12 a month, will keep tabs on when the show airs on HBO and record every airing, if need be.

DVRs are smarter than the average VCR. They can analyze which shows a viewer regularly records, and, on their own, record shows with similar descriptions. A television viewer who routinely programs his or her TiVo to tape Sportscenter might end up with another sports-themed show saved for a rainy afternoon.

A TiVo unit taps television programming information, supplied by Tribune Media Services, which has an arrangement with TiVo, by placing brief, daily phone calls to access the information. These automated calls are made when the phone line isn’t in use and may incur local or long-distance phone charges.

Viewers watching TiVo-recorded shows can skim over boring programming — especially commercials — by hitting the fast-forward button to skip ahead at 3,18 or 60 times regular playback speed.

ReplayTV users have a few luxury features they can tap, including a commercial skip feature that automatically passes over the bulk of the ads in a program. ReplayTV users also can transmit shows they have recorded to fellow ReplayTV users via phone lines.

Mark Streger, director at the Rockville-based Tech Council of Maryland and a TiVo user, says DVRs are more versatile than VCRs.

VCRs don’t allow viewers to skip instantly from one part of a recorded program to another like DVRs can, says Mr. Streger, whose group promotes technological business and development in the region. “It’s the key difference.”

One of the technology’s more intriguing features is the illusion of bypassing commercials shown during live broadcasts.

“Typically, if me and my wife watch ‘NYPD Blue’ we’ll come down at 10:15 [to watch it],” he says. Then, they can watch the show and breeze through the commercials.

Here is how it works. Mr. Streger turns on his television and TiVo at 10 p.m., when the show begins. The TiVo immediately begins recording the program without any prompting. When he settles down at 10:15 p.m. to watch the show, the first 15 minutes already have been recorded. He can start watching the show from the beginning while the TiVo seamlessly records the rest of the program. When he hits the first commercial break, he can fast-forward through them without catching up to the broadcast material.

TiVo-type units constantly record material broadcast on whatever channel the unit is set on. This allows the viewer to hit the instant replay button to see material that may have been missed. It also allows viewers to pause the program for a snack, then return to the show without missing a beat.

The units typically have a recording buffer of anywhere from half an hour to an hour, which lets the viewer rewind a show being aired up until that limit.

DVR technology has been slow to catch on with the masses. Specialists say the public has a hard time grasping how it works, although once they understand the process they often speak highly of its benefits. Consumers also are wary of adding another monthly bill to their household. Forrester Research thinks greater acceptance will come.

The Cambridge, Mass., firm, which keeps tabs on technological trends, reports that DVR-like devices along with “video on demand” services will reach half the U.S. households by 2007. Its report also shows that DVR owners view an average of 60 percent of all ads aired right now but that those numbers will tumble in the years to come.

Josh Bernoff, principal analyst with Forrester Research, says the largest share of the DVR market doesn’t belong to ReplayTV or TiVo but to Echostar, which includes the DVR equipment in many of its satellite television packages.

“It’s been available almost as long as the stand-alones [like TiVo],” Mr. Bernoff says. TiVo and ReplayTV date to 1999, he says.

Major cable companies, like Time Warner Cable, also now offer DVR technology in their product packages. Comcast, which provides cable service to some of the D.C. metropolitan region, should have similar technology available by year’s end, he says.

Forrester Research’s surveys have shown the key draw of DVR technology is the ability to skip commercials. Consumers also love being able to record an entire season’s worth of shows and the ability to pause live television.

Other options, such as the unit’s ability to suggest and record shows similar to those the viewer chooses are less successful, he says.

“It’s not really good at guessing what you like,” he says.

Consumers may enjoy the convenience TiVo and its ilk offer in skipping commercials and allowing shows to be sent between ReplayTV users, but the television industry isn’t pleased.

“Both of those features resulted in lawsuits from the television networks [which said] you’re taking liberties with copyrighted material,” he says. Starting in August, new ReplayTV models won’t offer those two services.

Some DVR customers are similarly disappointed in the level of DVR technology currently available. Ray Mohr, senior sales adviser with SoundWorks in Kensington, says the DVR may not be ready for prime time.

“People got burnt,” Mr. Mohr says flatly when asked about customer reaction to DVR units from his store, which stopped stocking them a year ago.

The format makes sense, Mr. Mohr says, but customers continually reported problems with shows not recording properly and other hard-drive failures.

David Weisman, director of merchandising for home electronics with the Crutchfield retail chain based in Charlottesville, says the TiVo brand has entered the lexicon, with even Jay Leno telling TiVo jokes on “The Tonight Show.”

Sales figures, Mr. Weisman says, haven’t followed suit. A standard TiVo unit can be had for about $450, he says, a price that might scare away some consumers used to DVD players that hover below the $100 mark.

Whether DVRs thrive or perish, Mr. Bernoff says the venerable VCR will soon go the way of the 8-track tape.

“VCRs are absolutely on the way out,” he says. “[DVRs] are really delivering on the promise the VCR had but never delivered on.”

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