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June 21, 2005

I Want My Flexible TV!

Sarah Lacy

If you read this piece on BusinessWeek Online, you know—I love my TV and I’m not afraid to admit it. My husband and I are good friends with a couple who are equally hooked. Like us, they weren’t afraid to vote for their American Idol or revel in the latest drama on the OC, though we are all smart, urban professionals and well over the age of 13. At one point a few years ago our friends had a debate on whether this was the golden or platinum age of television.

I’d vote platinum. And not because of the programming, but because of the way technology is increasingly allowing you to skirt the whims of big broadcasters.

Between TiVo, DVDs, and file-sharing everyone can in essence become their own network exec. To me, it’s already more revolutionary than the iPod, and there’s still innovation to be had. And unlike Apple, no one company has really benefited from it all, although several startups are trying.

I’ve long been a fan of watching TV series I missed the first time around on DVD and if you read this posting a while back you know how highly my TiVo ranks in consumer electronics importance. But I was struck again by the instant gratification to be had these days after a minor tragedy in the Lacy household last night.

We don’t normally admit it to people we don’t know—much less broadcast it on the Internet—but my husband and I have become recent addicts of the rare WB hit, The Gilmore Girls. (Hey, give it a chance, it’s more sophisticated than it may seem! Plus we all have to have our guilty pleasures right? I know a certain very senior BusinessWeek writer who never misses an episode of Smallville…) We’ve been TiVoing all the past episodes every day for months off of ABC Family—all the way from the pilot to now the tail end of season four.

A month or so ago, our TiVo gaffed—we left town and a few episodes erased. Fortunately they were from season three, which had just come out on DVD. As season four began, we knew we were flying without a net. Last night, the unthinkable—our TiVo changed to the wrong channel and instead of our nightly visit to Stars Hollow we got an hour of Cops. Even we don’t stoop that low. We were crestfallen. My husband grabbed his laptop to find an episode synopsis and moments later a grin spread across his face. A Google search and a few clicks later he’d found a bit torrent link to download the whole episode in High Definition. Voila— that long tail we all keep hearing about.

I’m not admitting or denying our engagement in file sharing. But the instant gratification of it all was astounding. I know all kinds of video archives and legal file swapping startups are underway and while the game may be ending for music, it’s just beginning for TV and I would argue it’s a bigger opportunity. Forget movies—just imagine the potential of a legal service like this. I know it’s fashionable to bash TV, but its part of the fabric of our society—more so than movies, music or sadly books. My father-in-law has long sought an episode of the Tonight Show where he was razzed in the audience by Steve Allen, Jack Paar or one of those pre-Johnny guys. Crying baby? Download some Barney. Down on today’s TV? Make your own Nick-at-Nite. Kids doing a report on dinosaurs? Download a National Geographic special.

There’s arguably a social cost to being able to get whatever you want whenever you want it—but there’s also one heck of a business to be built.

01:38 PM

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I totally agree with you on this. TV technology is just in its infancy and we're starting to see the "my TV" revolution. The general populous is becoming more aware of what technology can do for them. They know that entertainment and content schedules can be bent to fit their schedules and lifestyles all with the help of Tivos and other TV devices.

On a side note, I've noticed the TV producers are starting to fight back on the Tivo 30 second skippers who know that each commercial break is 7 or 8 clicks to bypass by putting an uneven amount of commercials spaced sporadically around the show rather than at defined intervals. They're basically trying to fake me out! I know they're just trying to make a buck, but c'mon...stooping to the school yard head fake?!?

Posted by: Tommy at June 21, 2005 05:09 PM

There’s a whole can of worms that could be opened here… Copyright infringement, illegal uses of software, etc. That’s the interesting part. You wanted the content, tried to get it one way, but it didn’t work, you knew there were alternatives, so you used those. If you could have found it and paid $5 or $10 would you have? Probably. I think that if the entertainment companies figure out how to give that flexibility, immediate gratification, etc. people would pay an incremental price for it. The problem is they can’t figure it out and keep hoping that it is not going to change. It will change. It’s changing everyday. It has changed. Just wait until private online communities have the content you want, and you can stream it to your TV from my computer b/c it’s a private performance or you’ll pay a fee of $3 to get it from a trusted source. It will be fascinating to see how these worlds converge and either take advantage of the opportunity/demand or blow it.

Posted by: anonymous at June 21, 2005 06:30 PM

Web sites are starting to get in on the action as well. The quality is not the same as downloading it in high def, but for those seeking something to watch online immediately without commercial interruption, is a site that was passed onto me and is picking up steam. Genius move by those who created it.

Posted by: Dave at June 22, 2005 03:04 PM

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