"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 May 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Tail of the Tape


Already, analysts and early

adopters are heralding ReplayTV

as "the dream of the VCR finally

come true," an idiot-box

breakthrough on par with the

Swanson Salisbury Steak TV

dinner and the La-Z-Boy

platform rocker with extending

footrest. And, indeed, the new

set-top device, which can save

up to 28 hours of TV on its hard

disk, has some compelling

features. Recording programs is

extremely easy: You simply click

on show names from an on-screen

channel guide. In addition to

this VCRs for Dummies utility,

ReplayTV also enables you to

skip commercials with a touch of

a button and record programming

based on keywords rather than

specific shows. For example, if

you enter the keywords "Bob

Saget," ReplayTV will record any

upcoming show (America's

Funniest Home Videos reruns, talk

show appearances, etc.) that

includes the underappreciated

funmaker in its program guide



ReplayTV also offers some

unique real-time viewing

enhancements: If in the

midst of the latest episode of

COPS, say, you find yourself in

need of more matches, you can

simply "pause" the broadcast,

refuel as necessary, then

continue watching when you've

achieved the proper perspective.

And if the episode happens to

contain some particularly

compelling scraggly-haired-


whole-goddamn-world segment,

you can replay it to your

heart's content, and then watch

the rest of the show after

you've finally had your fill.


Obviously, such functionality

has potentially huge

ramifications. In addition to

changing COPS from a 30-minute

time commitment to a show that

will likely take hours to fully

appreciate, ReplayTV may also

decimate whatever effectiveness

commercials have left. As

Forrester Research analyst Josh

Bernoff puts it, "This will

destroy the advertising model of

network television." And because

viewers will be able to watch

shows whenever they want,

network executives will be hard-

pressed to artificially extend

shows like Veronica's Closet by

sandwiching them between hits

like Friends and ER. According to John

Ellis of The Boston Globe, "If

ReplayTV connects with

consumers, then network

television and cable television

will have to completely rethink

their business models, Hollywood

television production companies

will have to rethink their

distribution, and syndicators

will have to renegotiate their


[wah wa!]

But as much as we like

sweeping proclamations and

the overnight destruction of

billion-dollar industries, we

can't help but think that

ReplayTV has arrived a few

decades too late. After all,

it's essentially designed for

people who watch TV with a high

degree of purpose and attention -

they have specific shows they

like, and they don't want to

miss a single moment of them.

But how many people fit that

description anymore? In fact,

how much TV programming is even

designed to be watched like that

these days? The primary virtue

of most post-cable genres is

not their low cost, but rather,

their lack of a plot. You don't

have to see the first six

world's scariest car chase

reenactments to be completely

enthralled by the seventh. The

same general principle informs

SportsCenter, Talk Soup, Total

Request Live, and the TV Guide

Channel; even Seinfeld owed much

of its popularity to the fact

that its six-subplots-in-

search-of-a-story format

graciously allowed for less-

than-attentive viewing.


Ultimately, then, what ReplayTV

does is allow you to watch,

without interruption,

programming that was designed to

be interrupted. Of course, it

also allows you to watch such

programming on your own

schedule, but even that has

limited value in an era of

hyper-syndication. If you

somehow happen to miss ER on

Thursday night, it's on every

other night of the week too, as

is Friends, The X-Files, Frasier,

The Simpsons, Xena, Star

Trek, Party of Five, and

seemingly just about every

other show that ran for more

than one season. And if you

somehow manage to engage in

three consecutive TV-viewing

sessions without having a chance

to watch VH-1's Behind The

Music: Leif Garrett, call the

editors at Guinness - you've

just set a record.

[beware of the killer shrews]

Instead of ReplayTV's recording

capabilities, what's really

needed are devices that enhance

the surfing experience.

ReplayTV's ability to search on

keywords has the potential for

such functionality, but not in

its current incarnation. Indeed,

since it only searches the

descriptions in its on-screen

programming guide, it can only

record what's relatively easy to

find. For lazy stalkers in

search of specific celebrities,

this undoubtedly has value, but

is there a lazy stalker market

at all? Most of the satisfaction

of stalking, we imagine, derives

from the little exertions - the

painstaking canvassing of TV

Guide, the close study of the

Internet Movie Database.


But if ReplayTV's ability to

search for keywords were more

robust, it could definitely help

surfers who simply couldn't cover

all 50-plus channels effectively.

Imagine, for example, a device

that would allow you to search for

and record TV's more ephemeral

moments, the stuff that isn't

listed in program guides, the

stuff you optimistically

hope to come across in your

hours of restless surfing but

only rarely see: your favorite

video that MTV almost never

plays; that new commercial that

everyone at work is talking

about; any instance

in which Larry king mentions

oral sex; that grown man

on the Shop at Home Network

who works himself into a

persuasively butch sports-fan

lather while shilling miniature

"Bee Butterfly Bammer Bear"

plush-toy tributes to Muhammad

Ali. And if such functionality

is too ambitious at this point,

then how about a device that

would simply allow you to

program various surfing patterns -

30 seconds on MTV, say, then a

minute on the Japanese-language

channel, then a few seconds on

MSNBC, then back to MTV, then

onward to ESPN and Fox Sports,

ad infinitum.

[gurtzasparigus rising]

Of course, there are times when

we're just too tired to engage

in such ambitious information

processing, times when we just

want to watch an old-fashioned

sitcom or drama - and wouldn't

ReplayTV come in handy then?

Well, not really, because as far

as we're concerned, how could we

possibly do a better job of

scheduling than the programmers

have already done? Indeed, while

you could certainly watch 60

Minutes on some other night of

the week, it simply works best

on Sunday, when you have a need

for fodder you can discuss with

your busybody co-worker the

next day because you really

don't want to talk about how you

actually spent most of the

weekend downloading midget orgy

porn from the Internet. And why

would you ever want to watch

shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, and

Friends, with their idealized

visions of camaraderie, at any

time other than Thursday night,

when the weekend is imminent and

one's own desires for communal

leisure are strongest?


In the end, isn't it better that

you can't watch your favorite

show whenever you want?

Advocates of the broadcast model

often speak of the sense of

community and common language

that a mass TV audience fosters,

but, really, whatever ethnic,

economic, religious, and

political differences are

bridged by our affinity for,

say, reluctant exhibitionist

David Duchovny, broadcasting has

a far greater impact on

individual lives. That is, in

our increasingly atomized

culture, the broadcast model

lends a sense of order. Certain

shows run at certain times, and

people use that structure to

organize their lives, to

prioritize time, to mark and

celebrate and ritualize the

passing week. In light of the

chaos and cultural dissolution

we've been plagued with ever

since killing God a century ago,

do we really want to kill prime

time too?

courtesy of St. Huck


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