If I were making a list of all of the things I was thankful for this year, one of the things that would rank high on my list is my DVR (it would rank just slightly behind my fiancée and just in front of my immediate family). I got a DVR last year and don’t know how I could live without it. After the first week, I began to question how I’d lived this long without one. Having a DVR made me feel practically Amish for recording my favorite TV shows with a VCR for all of those years.
And while DVRs are the greatest invention ever in the history of the universe (people always say that things are the “greatest invention since sliced bread,” but sliced bread has never allowed me to set up a season pass to record every episode of Psych with a single click of a button, so screw sliced bread), I can’t help but wonder what effect these amazing creations are having on television. This week, I am going to take a look at what I am calling “The Tivo Effect” to find out just how the television landscape is changing …
One of the biggest things DVRs are affecting is commercials. While VCRs have always allowed you to fast forward through commercials, DVRs make it easier than ever. You can actually start your favorite shows 15 minutes after they air so that you can skip all of the commercials, instead of having to wait for a VCR to finish recording the show and rewinding the VHS tape before being able to enjoy a commercial-free broadcast.
One interesting side effect of this commercial-free capability is the way it conditions DVR owners to hate commercials. Once you get used to watching the majority of your favorite shows sans commercials, when you attempt to watch a show live, the commercials seem painfully long and irritating. My brother and his wife were the first people I knew who got Tivo. I remember going over to their house to watch Lost one evening and they were both complaining about how the show annoyed them because it had too many commercials. Obviously, Lost doesn’t have any more commercials than any other show, but they no longer had the patience to sit through live TV.
Networks are already trying to figure out a way to deal with this problem. Fox is trying something interesting with their new show Fringe – the show is presented with limited commercial interruptions every week. Most commercial breaks don’t last longer than 60 seconds. While I do think that it is a cool idea and I applaud Fox’s effort, I must admit that their ploy isn’t working – I still fast forward through the commercials when I watch Fringe on my DVR.
The other way that networks deal with commercials being skipped is by adding product placements into their shows. On this past Sunday’s 24: Redemption (which was fantastic by the way – did you see the part where Jack Bauer’s arms were tied up, but he still snapped that guy’s neck with his legs? That was awesome), they made it a point to show the network the president used to teleconference with the African leaders was made by Cisco (and sadly not by Sisqo, who was too busy checking out the thong-tha-thong-thong-thongs worn by the other people standing in the unemployment line). They also had a close up of a Sprint cell phone during a phone call.
As long as the product placement isn’t blatant to the point of distraction, I’m okay with it. If giving Noah Bennet glasses from Lenscrafters or having House buy his next cane from Wal-mart helps to offset the money lost in advertising when jerks like me skip through all of the commercials, then so be it. Just don’t whore out the show so much that the products become the focal point and we’ll be fine.
But there is one other way that DVRs are changing the way we watch TV and it’s a change that is much more annoying to me than this whole commercial debacle. The other effect Tivo is having on TV is that it’s ruining the so-called “watercooler moments” that television used to be famous for.
Networks used to go out of their way to promote “watercooler moments” in their biggest shows. Since TV executives are out of touch with the common man, for some reason they believe that employees gather around watercoolers and discuss their favorite TV shows. I’ve worked in countless different environments and never once gathered around a watercooler to discuss anything – expect perhaps the fact that the lazy maintenance guy failed to refill said watercooler. So while I take umbrage with the term, I do agree that TV has been able to create some truly compelling or noteworthy moments that people were discussing at work the following day.
After The Sopranos bizarre finale, I remember having in-depth discussions with friends and coworkers about what it all meant. Hell, I can ever remember having discussion with my classmates back in 1995 trying to figure out who shot Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. But I worry that DVRs will eventually ruin this phenomenon.
My brother and I both watch Sons of Anarchy on FX. The show has been really great this season and it has produced some truly memorable moments (including showing us what it would be like if Hellboy hooked up with Peg Bundy). Every time I watch a new episode of the show, I want to call up my brother and talk about all of the awesomeness that has just unfolded. But I can’t because right now my brother is four episodes behind me on the show. He just lets the episodes pile up on his Tivo and eventually watches them in a mini-marathon.
And I know my brother is not alone. I know people who don’t even know what nights or times their favorite shows come on. They just wait for Tivo to tell them they have a new episode. More and more, DVR owners aren’t watching shows when they air, they prefer to wait until whenever is convenient for them.
And DVDs only make things worse. Recently, my fiancée and I started watching Deadwood. So here we are watching a show that was canceled two years ago. Somehow, I don’t think my friends at the watercooler want to hear me talk about the funny line Joanie Stubbs had in episode six of season two, since they have either never seen the show or have long since forgotten the scene I’m talking about.
So how can we combat The Tivo Effect? Obviously, networks and their sponsors will find a way to deal with us fast forwarding through all of the commercials – either through product placement or other nefarious means. But as for the end of watercooler moments, I’m not really sure what can be done. Perhaps someone can make a new social networking website or a Facebook application that allows you to list when you watch episodes of the shows taped on your DVR so that you can find other people who are watching it too. That way, you can set up a chatroom to “stand around” the virtual watercooler and discuss everything that’s happening in the old episode of Futurama that Comedy Central aired at 2 a.m. four weeks ago.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make a call on my Sprint phone to set up this Cisco teleconference I’m having later today with advertisers to discuss the possibility of adding product placements into this column. I don’t think I can bring myself to whore out like that though – it just seems so cheap and tacky.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.