Torin Douglas: TiVo – or the case of the dog that never barked

Commercial TV was set for turmoil with the advent of personal video recorders. But at a recent conference they didn’t even get a mention.

Whatever happened to TiVo, the magic box which – with its fellow PVRs (personal video recorders) – was going to revolutionise our lives, put ITV out of business (by encouraging viewers to skip the commercials) and generally change the face of television as we know it?

A few months ago we were assured that PVRs such as TiVo were the future of television. There’d be no need for channels – we’d schedule our own, assembling our favourite programmes on the TiVo hard disc. The BARB ratings would be in chaos as the nation no longer watched EastEnders at the same time but whenever people wanted!

Yet, such is the short life of the Next Big Thing in broadcasting technology these days (remember the WAP phone?) that TiVo has already slipped down the sofa of collective consciousness. At this week’s high-powered Financial Times conference on New Media & Broadcasting it didn’t get a mention before coffee and if it hadn’t been for a questioner from SG Warburg, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Indeed, the neglect of TiVo – like the dog that didn’t bark in Sherlock Holmes – was the most interesting pre-coffee event, despite an extremely starry line-up of speakers, a veritable Who’s Who of European broadcasting.

Jean-Marie Messier, chairman and chief executive officer of Vivendi Universal, the world’s number two media and communications group and the biggest in music, online games, and film production; Didier Bellens, chief executive officer of the RTL group, proud owner of most of Channel 5 and much else besides, both across continental Europe and the globe; Urs Rohner, chief executive officer of a company now called ProSiebenSat.1 Media, but better known as the German broadcasting powerhouse Kirsch; and, by no means least, the UK’s very own Steve Morrison, chief executive of Granada Media.

Each, in turn, explained why theirs was the best-placed company to prosper in the global environment, playing up their own strengths and ignoring their weaknesses. Occasionally, unsportingly, one of them would point out the flaw in a rival’s argument.

Thus, after Bellens announced that RTL was Europe’s only truly pan-European media company – with 24 TV channels, 17 radio stations and 80 Web brands in ten countries – Rohner pointed out that it didn’t own any of its channels outright and that you really need a strong home market if you are going to prosper internationally.

Ah, said Morrison, but ITV is Europe’s most successful commercial TV channel, and Granada its biggest player, producing 80 per cent of its top-rated shows. Last year, he said, ITV delivered over 2,000 audiences of 5 million or more, compared with C4’s 29 and C5’s, er, one.

But though all four discussed the technological changes affecting their markets, none mentioned TiVo until asked – a healthy reminder that so much of what is being predicted has turned out to be so much sewage (a business which, as one speaker pointed out, Vivendi used to be in and now isn’t).

In that spirit, I should pass on Jean-Marie Messier’s predictions that (a) the old Internet will be as different from the Internet yet to come, as the bicycle is from the space shuttle, and (b) that music tracks will one day be generally released online several months before they come out on CD, in the same way that movies are shown in cinemas before being made available on video. He said this was because online will one day be safer from pirates than CDs which, given the way Napster has blown a hole in the intellectual property market, may still be some time off.

Fortunately, the morning was lifted by Adam Singer, chief executive of a company that is still called Telewest. He revealed that after Telewest, the cable company, merged with Flextech, the content company, he had insisted the group would have to be renamed.

He rejected the name Earth, on the grounds that “you need a level of self-confidence and hubris to be able to say ‘Good morning, I am CEO of Earth’.” Out, too, went Circus and Yo-Yo, until he finally decided that name changes are like the emperor’s new clothes. “There is no redemption in a name, only in an action.”

And the cable industry, as he acknowledged in a burst of candour, is in dire need of redemption. “As of May 2000, Telewest had a digital TV service where the box froze with a fault rate of over 50 per cent” he said. “We couldn’t do live pay-per-view digital sports events and our programme guide could not tell you tomorrow’s programmes. This culminated in a first, in that customers were trying our state-of-the-art digital TV service and going back to analogue.”

Now, he insists, they’re over the worst, though there’s still a long way to go. The system works, including its “Surf Unlimited” Internet service and Telewest will have sold 500,000 digital set-top boxes by the end of the month. Singer remains convinced that the future is cable, not satellite – because it’s about much more than multi-channel television. Information, he says, is the new electricity – linking computers, e-books, web pads, printers, MP3 machines and even, eventually, PVRs.

Linked to local area wireless, he says, cable will provide data and full interactivity, at a speed satellite cannot compete with: “To use the high-speed network we are building just to receive TV channels is like buying a mobile phone for the alarm clock function.”

Cable was the Next Big Thing long before TiVo and the WAP phone. Could its time finally be about to come?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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