There are a lot of misconceptions about what Tivo is, and their recent ad
campaigns are not doing much to clear things up. Tivo is being billed as "interactive
television". It is interactive, just not the way you'd think.
Tivo is a digital VCR, with an underlying operating system and
UI written on top of Linux. It downloads two weeks
of schedule information every night, so it always knows what shows are on when.
This has several huge, extremely liberating advantages over tape-based
- you don't have to remember to have a blank tape handy to record a
- you don't have to remember to record the program in the first place.
You just tell it which shows you like to watch, and it records them whenever
- There's lots of space on a 30GB hard drive (30 hours of video at
lowest density, comparable to VHS LP mode, and 8 hours at highest,
indistinguishable from broadcast) to record programming. This is the
best part of Tivo: if there's room left over from recording what you said
you wanted to watch, it starts to record other stuff it thinks you might
like, based on your preferences, which it learns the more you use it. The
idea is that there should always be a full hard drive of programming to
choose from when you turn on your TV.
The Pause That Refreshes
The way Tivo is marketed you would think that the whole point
is that you can pause live TV. The machine does indeed enhance the experience
of watching live TV, since you can hit pause, and even "rewind"
a bit if you missed something (Tivo buffers 30 minutes of whatever you're
watching automatically). There's a frame-by-frame slow motion button,
and a button that skips back 7 seconds (the latter feature is extremely
handy if you missed a line of dialogue). You can also overlay program
information onto the video: what you are watching, the episode title (nice for sorting out reruns), cast names, running time. Tivo has all
this information because you hook it up to your phone line, and it dials
the mothership once a day, typically in the middle of the night, to
download two weeks of programming schedules, software upgrades, and reset
its clock (another nice feature; the clock never drifts).
Once you use it for a while, though, you begin to understand that the
whole point of Tivo is that you should never watch anything live ever again.
In fact, even when you watch "live" TV with Tivo you really aren't,
because the machine is compressing and buffering the video and re-displaying
it for you with a delay. The point of Tivo is that you watch what you want
to, when you feel like watching TV, and you stop caring about when it's
This is incredibly liberating. I bought one because I was tired of the
following scenario: I get home and I am (1) too mentally tired from
a long day at work, or (2) too full of beer/wine/drink of choice from
a long night out to read or do anything useful. But I'm also too wired
to sleep, so I'd like a little passive entertainment to help me relax
and then collapse. It's 10 or 11 o'clock at night. All that's on is Seinfeld
reruns, local news, and bad movies. I watch them anyway, because I'm too
tired to do anything else. I'm also not at my best, to say the least, in
the morning, so I frequently forget to set a tape to record the one or
two shows I actually do want to watch. If any of this sounds familiar,
you should think about a Tivo.
The other reason not to watch things live is commercials. Tivo has
a clever fast-forward system that, once you get used to it, allows you
to skip over commercials extremely quickly and accurately. You would
be amazed at how much of TV is commercials. I can watch 3 episodes of The
Simpsons in an hour. Even if I can't wait to see a show (e.g., the X-Files
season premiere) I routinely wait until I'm a good 15 minutes into the
broadcast. Then I start watching and gradually "catch up" to the
broadcast by zipping past the commercials.
Everybody's a Critic
Tivo lets you specify two levels of preference for shows:
- Tivo has something called a "season pass". This is the
highest form of commitment to a show. It means that whenever, e.g., The
X-files or The West Wing is on, you want the Tivo to record it, at
the expense of anything else. This is the core benefit of Tivo: you tell
it what you want to watch, forget about when it's on, and it appears.
- Tivo also provides a "thumbs up"/"thumbs down"
rating system for shows. There are buttons that correspond to this on the
remote that comes from the unit. This is the other half of Tivo's brilliance:
the more you rate the shows that you watch (or don't watch), the more Tivo
learns what you like. The operative principle is that whenever you turn
on your TV, Tivo has a full hard drive of stuff to watch. So if Tivo has
recorded only 6 hours of season pass programs, it will attempt to fill
up the rest with programming it thinks you might want to watch based on
your preferences. The more you rate shows, the better it gets at this.
Quality of life
Once you get used to the Tivo paradigm, your quality of life w/r
to TV improves vastly. Several friends of mine have expressed the fear that
if they get one, they will actually watch more TV, and they would like to
avoid this. From personal experience, you will watch more initially
because of the "neato factor", but you will eventually settle
down to the level you were watching before, or even less, because you stop
surfing and watching junk to veg out. Tivo strikes a nice psychological
balance here: it removes the investment in watching and recording television
programs. With a VCR, if you are interested in watching something, you have
to: (1) remember to set the VCR, (2) scare up a blank tape, if you even
have one, and (3) navigate whatever Byzantine interface your VCR has to
program it to record your program. Once you have jumped through all those
hoops, you are invested in that program, and you feel a need to watch
it. With Tivo, there's no guilt: you expended no effort, so there's no
particular reason to watch something if you don't want to (the episode sucks,
it's a rerun, etc). The investment becomes an investment in your time,
which is, after all, as it should be.