Friday, July 07, 2006


Whilst perusing a recent issue of New Media & Society, I was pleased to come across a dandy little article by one Matt Carlson, entitled "Tapping Into TiVo." Carlson provides a surveillance-by-way-of-political-economy riff on the structure of transactions that shapes how TiVo operates. As those who know me will attest, I am perpetually on the verge of getting TiVo at home, and I read this piece with particular interest.

The nutshell of Carlson's argument concerns the fears and advantages that face the existing advertising/media industry. It works like this:
1) "Networks lose the prolonged attention of their audiences."
2) TiVo jeopardizes "the practice of using program time to entice viewers to sit through commercial time that provides the primary base of television economics"
3) The ratings system is not designed to deal with time-shifted programming. "If the trust in the reliability of ratings...begins to vanish, networks and advertisers will be forced to find alternative methods of audience measurement"
4) "As interactivity and broadband internet resources continue to expand, content providers fear that it will grow easier for individuals to redistribute, without permission, their content."

So, as many have pointed out, TiVo may enhance the "sky is falling" mentality in the broadcast biz, as the the promises of a more user-centered medium threaten the core assumptions that sustain the advertising/ratings axis.

Of course, the plot thickens, as Carlson reminds us that TiVo is not just a giant-killing, "prosumer" tool. TiVO also offers advantages to advertisers and to broadcasters. The points:
1) "Widespread time-shifting would add value to the midnight to 6 am time slots since a DVR will search through the entire day for programming".
2) "DVR users watch more television than they did before owning a DVR."
3) "DVRs offer new potential spaces for advertisers, such as within EPGs." (EPGs = electronic programming guides)
4) "Content providers and advertisers are also interested in interactive ads, such as a 'showcase' for programs that the user clicks on to record the show or contests that users can enter with a click of the remote."
5) AHEM: "The greatest potential benefit of DRRs, and one stressed by TiVo, is the creation of a two-way flow of information that facilitates the collection of viewer data and ultimately addressable programming and marketing."

Carlson helpfully notes that, with the advent of TiVo, control (in the James Beniger sense of the term) has shifted from "scheduling to surveillance". This is how viewing will be patterned/disciplined in the near future.

Carlson is to be thanked, I think, for not going with the tiresome prediction that "It used to be that we watched TV. Now....TV IS WATCHING US". TV has been watching us for some time. It's just that there have been adjustments in the process by which we are monitored, and this system of surveillance has been made (dramatically) more detailed.

What Carlson doesn't do--because he's a responsible scholar trying to be careful--is try to predict how programming will change as a result of these changes. It's fun to imagine a world where Arrested Development would have been saved because TiVo allowed advertisers to gaze into the viewing habits of that show's (relatively well-educated and well-off and young) audience. I'm not so confident about this. An easy prediction to make would be that TiVo may simply be the next step on the road to a 'pay per' approach to television. TiVo is already conditioning viewers to look at their viewing habits as a queue/menu. This is the kind of a la carte (or 'disaggregated' or 'unbundled') programming that broadcasters feared for a long time. But it's possible, from Carlson's vantage point, to see how broadcasters aren't facing massive dispersion of the audience so much as they are dealing with a (perhaps dramatic) change in how audiences are to be disciplined. In other words, TiVo may not be the end of the mass audience, but the beginning of a new technique for creating new kinds of mass audiences. Not all roads lead to audience fragmentation, but many of the roads we're on right now seem to go through it.


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