Technology frees viewers from networks' schedules
Our regularly scheduled programming is becoming increasingly obsolete.
Thanks to TV on DVD, the iTunes Music Store, network Web sites, gadgets like eyeTV and ATi, digital video recorders and services like TiVo and ReplayTV, it's possible to watch TV without conventional cable.
Customizing a TV habit can be a heady prospect, much like ordering a triple grande extra vanilla 2 percent caramel macchiato at the coffee shop.
And as viewers begin to fit shows like ABC's "Lost" and The CW's "Veronica Mars" around their life's schedule instead of planning their night in sync with the network's lineup, they're finding out they love this not-so-remote control.
Take the most popular way to watch TV on your own schedule: DVRs. Digital video recorders can be programmed once to record episodes of a favorite TV show every week, and it's possible to pause, rewind and fast-forward through the recorded segment; in short, it's a more technologically advanced VCR without the tape. TiVo is the most easily recognized name in DVR technology, but some cable providers offer DVR service with their digital cable packages, and there are other DVR options available, as well.
For instance, ReplayTV. Because of Replay, Melinda Belleville refuses to watch TV in real time.
Belleville, 51, of Lexington, Ky., has had the service for more than four years and couldn't be happier with it. Replay works just like TiVo and other DVRs and allows her to record and save anything from "Gilmore Girls" on The CW and "Law & Order: SVU" on NBC to a Dave Chappelle comedy special and watch them on her own time.
And she can fast-forward through the commercials.
"It's the best thing since sliced bread," she said. "I love skipping the commercials and being able to watch (TV) when I want to. And I never have to worry about missing any shows."
So she unwinds with the latest episode of "Veronica Mars" on Thursday nights - two days after its original Tuesday airdate, zooming through those pesky advertisements with the tap of a button.
Belleville said she's surprised that devices like ReplayTV and TiVo aren't more popular.
There's one side effect she's a little embarrassed to divulge.
"It's made me more of a TV junkie than I was before," she said.
Nathan Stevens isn't so surprised that the technology hasn't caught on more. Although DVRs and iTunes are convenient and user-friendly, Stevens, the college technology coordinator for the University of Kentucky's School of Journalism and Telecommunications, said they ask a lot more from viewers.
"It's asking an extra step from people who only want to sit down and stare at the screen," he said. "The less people need to think, the better off they're going to be."
Stevens, 30, regularly downloads NBC's comedy "The Office" onto his computer and iPod from iTunes' online store, which carries music and, more recently, TV shows and movies. At $1.99 an episode, it's a convenience he can't pass up, Stevens said.
And although he has cable at home, he prefers to use something called eyeTV at work. The device, available only for Macintosh computers, is a DVR, receiver and video converter that allows users to bring in a video signal from a coaxial cable to a computer via a USB port. (The equivalent for PCs, called ATi, works the same way.)
The latest eyeTV incarnation, called the eyeTV Hybrid, is about the size of a flash drive and delivers free over-the-air digital TV to a Mac via antenna, as well as analog TV via antenna and standard cable. Users can watch live television, record shows and even program a TV-recording schedule remotely. It's also compatible with a video-capable iPod.
"It's nice," Stevens said, "but people still have to learn something new" to use the device. Still, he said, "it's catching on."
Television's expansion to offer programming online has surprised and impressed busy viewers and boosted ratings for shows that might have otherwise gotten the ax.
Between downloading from iTunes and watching the latest episodes of a show on a network's Web site, computers are almost supplanting actual television.
"I think it's rad," said Ian Conley, a UK graduate who runs a cable-access channel in Paintsville. "It really benefits a lot of shows - it's part of why `The Office' stayed on the air."
Last year, suffering from less-than-satisfactory Nielsen ratings, the NBC comedy was hovering near cancellation. But thanks to iTunes, "The Office" became the service's most-downloaded show, only recently supplanted by "Lost."
"I'm not sure that we'd still have the show on the air" without the iTunes boost, Angela Bromstead, president of NBC Universal Television Studio, which owns and produces "The Office," told Newsday in an interview. "The network had only ordered so many episodes, but when it went on iTunes and really started taking off, that gave us another way to see the true potential other than just Nielsen. It just kind of happened at a great time."
But downloads and TV on DVD have done more than just boost ratings, Conley said. They've made complex serialized dramas like Fox's "24" and "Lost," which require viewers to pay close attention to every episode to follow plotlines, much more accessible to everyone, even those with busier-than-normal schedules.
"It completely changes the whole dynamic," Conley said. "It democratizes the whole process."
THE COST OF CONVENIENCE
Services that allow viewers to watch TV at their convenience and not based on the networks' scheduling come with a price. Here's a rundown of the most popular avenues:
iTunes: More than 200 shows available for $1.99 an episode; $34.99 season passes are available for several shows, including ABC's "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost," but a season pass for NBC's "Heroes," at $42.99, will cost as much as waiting to buy the season DVD. Still, tucking an entire season into your pocket holds a lot of appeal. 30-gigabyte video iPod: $249; 80-gigabyte video iPod: $349. iTunes software, free. www.apple.com/itunes.
Digital cable plus DVR (through your local cable operator; monthly price varies depending on location).
TiVo (device plus service): Device fees: Free, $30 and $130, depending on storage capacity of the device. A one-year service plan costs $224 (or $19.95 a month); two-year plans cost $369 (or $18.95 a month); three-year plans with a limited-time "one year free" offer cost $369 (or $16.95 a month). Plus cost of cable or satellite service. www.tivo.com.
ReplayTV: Price includes device and service fee: $12.95 a month or $299.99 for the lifetime of the unit. Plus cost of cable or satellite service. www.replaytv.com.
eyeTV Hybrid: $149.99; includes built-in TV tuners, the ability to record to hard disk (and to CD/DVD or VCR), and TiVo-like features such as the ability to pause a live program for later viewing from where you left off. You also can hook these boards up to your television and surround-stereo system to play recorded TV. A computer-based DVR doesn't require a phone line or a monthly fee for a programming guide, as TiVo does. www.elgato.com.
ATi: About $200; includes built-in TV tuners, the ability to record to hard disk (and to CD/DVD or VCR), and TiVo-like features such as the ability to pause a live program for later viewing from where you left off. You also can hook these boards up to your television and surround-stereo system to play back recorded TV, or to connect your VCR and digitize old VHS tapes. A computer-based DVR doesn't require a phone line or a monthly fee for a programming guide, as TiVo does. http://ati.amd.com.
Webisodes: Free (or, the cost of your Internet service). New episodes generally will go up on a network's Web sites within 24 hours of the show's broadcast airing. The only drawback? Depending on your connection speed, the flow could be a bit choppy. www.abc.com, www.cbs.com, www.cwtv.com, www.nbc.com, www.fox.com.
TV on DVD: (prices gleaned from Amazon.com.) Prices vary, generally between $29.99 ("Smallville," "Veronica Mars") and $59.99 ("Gilmore Girls"); HBO shows are pricier, with the sixth season of "The Sopranos" costing $63.27 and "Deadwood's" first-season a whistle- inducing $99.98. A show's season generally is released just before the next season starts.