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TiVo Revolution Slow to Materialize

Now four years old, TiVo has certainly moved beyond the realm of "early adopters" -- people who are the first to buy new technology no matter the steep cost. But the personal video recorder -- it can best be described as a VCR on steroids -- has only about 700,000 subscribers, hardly a mainstream must-have device. NPR's John McChesney reports.

Makers of TiVo and its rival, Replay, and some reviewers said it would change the way people watched television. But despite the slow sales, the technology has sent shudders through the entertainment industry because it allows users to skip over commercials. And because it's always recording in the background, viewers can pause a live program when the phone rings -- and then pick up watching where they left off.

John Hoar, a young lawyer in San Francisco, says his TiVo has "revolutionized the way I watch television." The built-in program guide allows him to program the device to automatically record his favorite genre -- documentaries -- without having to scour TV listings.

Hoar says he enjoys TV more now because "when I come home on a Tuesday evening and I turn it on, I have 15 to 20 hours of my favorite programs to choose from."

But Brendan Koerner, who writes about technology for Slate magazine, says that even though TiVo makes recording simpler, it presents a technological challenge for many people.

Another potential turnoff is TiVo's decision to sell information about its audience's viewing habits to third parties, which may raise privacy concerns for some consumers. But CEO Mike Ramsay insists that only aggregate information about general viewing habits will be sold, not personal data.

The entertainment industry fears that the TiVo and Replay's ability to jump over commercials will undercut the foundation of television. But Josh Bernoff, principal analyst with Forrester Research, says he thinks the fears have been overblown. While it will have a serious effect on television advertising and the role of TV networks, he says, "this is not the end of television."

There are signs the industry is embracing the devices. Cable operators like Time Warner and Comcast are now building the technology right into their set top boxes.

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John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.
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