For the better part of two years, I’ve been debating whether I should buy myself a TiVo, and as a kind of corollary to that, whether I should subscribe to digital cable television. The first question I always ask myself in trying to resolve this debate is: how much more time am I willing to devote to watching television? The closest I can come to answering that is, “I probably can’t devote much more time, but I’d probably find some way to devote lots more time.” Which begins to explain why I neither own a TiVo nor subscribe to digital cable.The counter-argument that TiVo devotees make to that is that the units’ ability to ‘time-shift’ somehow gives viewers more time, and that freedom changes their lives. That may be overzealous hype, but I’m enticed by the possibilities of combining a digital video recorder with hundreds of channels of digital cable programming. Right now I get the standard local broadcast channels and the idea of being able to digitally capture HBO, Comedy Central, CNN and even Cartoon Network content — all on my own schedule — is quite heady.
But then I think about how much I pay to AOL Time Warner already — US$60 per month for its admittedly excellent Road Runner cable modem service — and the idea of paying an additional US$45 to one of the largest media companies in the world in exchange for the privilege to consume even more inducements to buy consumer goods is a bit disturbing. Certainly paying that wouldn’t be doing anything to further the cause of protecting free speech in this country, a subject I am supposedly so concerned about. This vague feeling of guilt is probably one of the biggest deterrents to subscribing to digital cable so far.
Of course, there’s also the possibility of just buying a TiVo and using it with the basic channels to which I have access currently. Actually, this is a perfectly sensible way to use a TiVo, because in my estimation, there’s plenty of good programming on the 4-6 major networks and PBS to keep me busy. And with my schedule, I miss enough of the kind of programming that I like that it’d be a boon to have a TiVo automatically recording all of it for me.
What’s more, I’m intrigued by the ingenuity of the legions of TiVo hobbyists out there who have hacked their units and extended their capabilities; O’Reilly is even set to publish a new book on the practice, publicly documenting those hacks for the world at large. And contrary to the practice of most corporations, TiVo has actually taken a quietly benign approach to these hacks, a position that makes them seem like a progressive company and bodes well for the long-term health of the user community.
The problem comes back to money. TiVo units aren’t cheap, especially with the monthly or lifetime dues that are required to activate the service and which endows them with their true value. That’s why I’m holding out hopes for projects like the coyly-named MythTV, “a homebrew PVR” alternative to both TiVo and its competitor, ReplayTV. Its chances for widespread acceptance may be on the low side, but the fact that digital video recording features are starting to seep outside of proprietary boxes and into alternative projects does demonstrate a fundamental truth about these devices: namely that their currently novel way of viewing television will inevitably become the way we’ll all be viewing television in the next decade.