The Hittman Chronicle

Couch Potato Nirvana

Last Monday the kids wanted to watch "Everybody Loves Raymond," but it was 9 o'clock, and the show was just starting. So we watched "Malcolm in the Middle" instead. We skipped over all the commercials, so it took less than twenty minutes. By then "Raymond" was nearly done, so we watched it from the beginning while the recorder finished recording it. As always, we watched no commercials. When we finished, "Becker" was half recorded, so we watched it from the beginning, without commercials, of course. Having watched three half hour shows in one hour, we turned off the TV and the recorder. When I got up the next morning "The Daily Show" was waiting for me to watch while I ate breakfast.

There were no tapes involved. In fact, we've hardly used the tape deck since we installed Tivo.

Programming a VCR to record a show requires you to know the date it airs, the time it starts, the time it finishes, the speed (quality) of the recording and what channel it's on. Then you have to remember to feed it a blank tape on the right day. With a Tivo you pick the show by name, pick the quality of the recording, and you're done. Even if the show times change, your show gets recorded.

It uses a hard drive instead of tapes, so instead of shuffling through stacks of tapes trying to remember which is which, you pick from a single on-screen list of every recorded show. You can also watch the beginning of a show while the end is being recorded, or watch a recorded show while a different live show is being saved. There's only tuner in the box, so you can't watch one live show while recording another.

Several times a week, late at night, Tivo dials out through your phone line and grabs updated listings. It usually knows what's on for the next week and a half. You can subscribe to the listing service monthly, for ten bucks a month, or by a single two hundred dollar subscription that lasts for the life of the box.

Although we seldom watch live TV any more, it enhances that too. When channel surfing, a blue bar at the top of the screen lists what's playing, even if the station is currently showing a commercial. And because it makes a temporary recording of the live show you're watching, you can back it up if you miss a line, or pause the show if you're interrupted.

All these features are very, very cool, but the biggest advantage is the elimination of commercials. When a commercial comes on, just hit the fast forward button three times (it has three speeds) and a five minute commercial break zooms by in about ten seconds. As soon as you see your show tap the play button, and it backs up thirty seconds, which is just about right to bring you to the end of the commercial break. It's much faster and easier than doing the same thing on a tape.

I can't overemphasize how much I love this feature. Commercials are getting stupider and stupider just as I'm getting older and less patient with stupidity. I don't buy any products that insult my intelligence with dumb ads, but that's only slightly satisfying, and doesn't reduce the immediate annoyance. Now I no longer watch people stuffing pizzas in toasters, collect-call commercials competing to out-dumb each other, or that annoying schizoid Pepsi brat.

As bad as these professional IQ insults are, they pale in comparison to the amateur insults produced by local businesses. Our area is plagued by an ugly little troll of a man who sells infected mattresses at cut rate prices. He infests our local stations with asinine commercials, featuring him in pajamas, dozens of times every evening. There are two furniture stores who hawk their substandard stuff by literally screaming. But the biggest offender is local Dodge dealer who is not only famous for ripping off customers, but for having the dumbest commercials in an industry known for dumb commercials. For years he had someone in a full sized bunny suit hopping around his lot. That was briefly replaced by a series featuring ugly women with bad teeth (girlfriends, I'm guessing). Now he runs commercials featuring the homely brats he's spawned. (Car salesman larvae?) They desperately try to look cute and fail miserably. This is somehow supposed to entice us to let daddy scam us into buying a lemon made entirely of compressed-rust.

At least, that's what I remember from a couple of months ago, before I got the Tivo. Those commercials have annoyed us for years, so I'm guessing they're still on, but I couldn't swear to it because I just skip over them now. The only commercials I watch any more are for Victoria's Secret - and I watch them in slow-mo.

There are quite a few other features and nice touches. Each show has a TV-Guide style synopsis for the most current episode. When you select a series, you're given the option of a season's pass - which records every episode on that channel. There are a half dozen ways to pick shows, and the menus are so simple and well designed even a WebTV user could handle them. You can rate a show with 1-3 thumbs up or thumbs down. Tivo uses your ratings and your recording history to grab things it thinks you'll like, and after a couple of weeks it guesses pretty well. (There are usually a couple of recordings of Taxi, Bob Newheart or Barney Miller waiting for me.) These guessed-at shows have the lowest priority, and will be recorded over if Tivo needs the space for something you've specifically told it to record.

There are also some glitches and annoyances. A Season's Pass will record every airing of a show on a given channel. For instance, The Daily show is broadcast three times a day, and Tivo will record each one on a season's pass. They have their own home-grown show, Tivo Picks, designed to recommend shows for the coming week, and they usually recommend garbage. There is no indication, anywhere, of how much disk space you have left. These are all rather trivial complaints, though, and may be addressed in the next software upgrade. It will come down the phone lines, and be installed automatically - yet another cool feature.

If, like most parents, your concerned that your family isn't watching enough TV, consider investing in a Tivo. You'll get to watch more TV, in less time, on your own schedule. And did I mention that you won't ever have to watch another commercial?


Additional Information

While you're watching Tivo, is it watching you?

You can hack into your Tivo to increase the hard drive space, and the company that makes them doesn't mind. (Warranty? What warranty?)

If you're nervous about adding another hard drive, other people will do it for you.

March 2001


© 2001 Dave Hitt

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