Published Jun 01, 2006For decades now we have been slaves to the cathode ray tube, force-fed programming by nefarious network suits who rubbed their fingertips together and gloated, "Youll watch what we want you to watch when we want you to watch it, dammit, and youll be happy. Or at least too apathetic to get off your couch and complain. Mwa-ha-ha!
But we, the people, have risen up to smite the evil execs that have been conspiring against us for oh so long. Listen close and you can even hear them quaking in fear for the first time since 1984s landmark U.S. Supreme Court "Betamax Case.
Though filmmakers were worried about the impact of the increasingly ubiquitous VCR on their ticket sales, they quickly found a way to rake in even bigger profits with the new device. But people werent just renting movies, they were also taping television shows and egads! fast-forwarding through the commercials.
The case actually began pre-emptively in 1976 when Universal City Studios sued Sony over its just-released Betamax video recorder (unaware that JVCs VHS would soon render their target obsolete). But this wasnt about recording formats, it was about copyright infringement and in a tight 5-4 vote, the Supremes ruled that "time-shifting recording something now to be watched later constituted fair use.
In other words, it was the beginning of a power-shift that has irrevocably altered television.
Though TV types are quick to blame technology, their greed is at least partly responsible. First they realised they could sell TV shows on DVD, convincing us to spend money on what had previously been free. This allowed small cults to build into big followings, resulting in the revival of Family Guy, the making of Fireflys cinematic spin-off Serenity, an (aborted) $50 million payday for Dave Chappelle and the spread of pay-cable shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to the non-subscribing masses.
Given all the doubts over Neilson ratings whose pre-selected viewers still mostly self-report in diaries rather than being digitally enumerated, letting them jot down the shows they should be watching, and which allegedly undercount minority viewers and ignores communal viewing areas like bars and dormitories DVD sales provide concrete evidence of a fan following. They also reduce the importance of on-air advertisements on corporate bottom lines.
The New York Times recently revealed that despite 24s ever-increasing ratings, the only reason the studio has been able to keep making new longest-days-ever is thanks to the $200 million the DVDs have brought in since 2002.
But TV on DVD has also spoiled us; not only are they nicely letterboxed and available for marathon viewing sessions but it made TV commercials even more interminable. Which is where digital video recorders come in. Dominated by TiVo in America the service is available here, but you have to import their set-top box and Rogers and Bells PVRs (personal video recorders) in Canada, this technology has recently reached a tipping point thats made traditional viewing habits irrelevant.
Storing digital programs onto a hard-drive makes recording TV a breeze regular PVRs scan the sked for your favourite shows while TiVos even predict what you might like based on previous recordings. This led to one infamous incident, later borrowed for a King of Queens episode, where a dudes TiVo decided he was gay, forcing him to record tons of war programming to change its mind, only to realise his TiVo now figured him for a Nazi.
More importantly, PVRs also let you pause and fast-forward live television meaning you never have to watch a commercial again. Ever. Even ex-FCC Chairman Michael Powell giddily referred to TiVo as "Gods machine.
The transfer from analogue to digital television has had other unintended consequences as well. As the music industry well knows, once entertainment is broken into 1s and 0s, nothing can contain it. With more and more people having broadband access, television shows have become easily downloadable via Bit Torrent, with popular programs becoming downloadable within hours of airing and then watched on PCs or burned to a blank DVD.
To counteract this, studios had no choice but to start selling episodes of Lost, Desperate Housewives, 24 and Battlestar Galactica via iTunes for viewing on wee little video iPod screens. Suddenly, shows were not simply freed from network schedules but from TVs altogether; they could be watched from car backseats or on commuter bus trips.
Networks also started streaming programming online: this month CBS launched their Innertube channel; ABC.com has been re-broadcasting the networks hit shows; and NBC is planning a series of broadband channels, while MTV Canada gets around their draconian CRTC license restrictions (which forbids music content) with their online MTV Overdrive.
But even though the networks are working the new paradigm better than their music counterparts, theyre also planning sneaky moves on the side.
Phillips has recently filed a patent for a device that would disable the fast-forward function during commercial breaks, but the biggest concern is coming from Republican Senator Ted Stevens, who just last month reintroduced the "Broadcast Flag, a means of restricting the consumers ability to save digital recordings and skip ads. The FCC attempted to make this law last year but was overruled by an appeals court for conflicting with established "fair use rulings.
Whatever does end up happening in the U.S. will eventually bleed across the border, but no amount of legal challenges or digital rights doohickeys can slow down the pace of progress. This revolution is already being televised, time-shifted, downloaded, burned and viewed on demand.