Torin Douglas: The PVR: a revolution or just another video nasty?

The PVR promised to free viewers from TV schedules, letting them choose what to watch when they wanted, but it has failed to capture the imagination of Torin Douglas

I have a sad confession to make. Last week I watched all 24 episodes of 24. Maybe not as sad as the Sunday Times reviewer who tried to watch the entire series in real time on DVD, starting at midnight, and fell asleep for three hours – missing the rape scene and about two dozen other crucial plot developments.

But sad enough to spend all week avoiding articles and previews for fear of having my surprises pre-empted – like the Likely Lads episode in which they try to avoid hearing the football result.

What was particularly sad was that I had tried and failed to watch 24 right from the start of its run six months ago. The cult US crime series – portraying 24 frenetic hours in the life of federal agent Jack Bauer in 24 one-hour chunks (give or take 15 minutes for commercials) – had been clearly signposted as one of the great television experiences.

It was scheduled and marketed strongly by BBC2, with previews of the following week’s episode – and follow-up chats – on BBC Choice. A few weeks after it started, they gave us another chance to get involved by screening a catch-up weekend to let us get into it again. And still I couldn’t crack it. Yet I have no excuse for missing any episode of any programme on any channel, ever again. Or so I was assured when I volunteered to test the machine that is meant to change your life, the personal video recorder (PVR). They told me I’d hardly watch live TV, that it would free me from the shackles of the schedulers and let me watch my favourite programmes at times of my own choosing.

I have two PVRs – a Sky Plus in the living room and a TiVo in the bedroom, attached to the service formerly known as ITV Digital. Both will record hours of programmes on a hard disc, at the touch of a button, as well as allowing you to pause live programmes when the phone or the doorbell rings. I also have two conventional video cassette recorders.

Were I even halfway organised I could have got into 24 six months ago and enjoyed the twists and turns week by week, sharing them with other fans. As it was, I had a hectic – though highly enjoyable – six days, watching four episodes a night, courtesy of BBC Choice. I had to take care to avoid Jon-athan Ross and his nightly interruptions with 24 Heaven, for fear he’d give away crucial plot developments, but seeing it in that concentrated form gave it a different edge. The nearest thing to it was watching that other classic mole-hunt, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, last Christmas, when BBC2 ran it in nightly episodes.

What is particularly worrying is that it seems I am almost alone in having failed to make the most of the PVR. Sky Plus has just produced research showing that nine out of ten users say they “never miss a favourite programme” and eight out of ten say it has reduced family arguments over what to watch. No fewer than 41 per cent say they plan their viewing a week in advance.

In principle, I can see why. Sky Plus is very simple to use. To record a programme, you simply go to the Electronic Programme Guide, find the programme listing and press the “record” button. There’s no racing around looking for an empty videotape, or one you can safely wipe, winding it back to the beginning and then discovering you’ve missed the start of the programme.

In practice, it’s different – certainly in my house. To start with, you have to know what you really want to watch. And though it is perfectly possible to sit down at the start of the week with the Radio Times or a free TV listings supplement, ordering up programmes for the next seven days, it’s a discipline I have not yet mastered.

What really depresses me is the eight out of ten PVR owners who say it has reduced family arguments. We have even more rows these days because the hard disc is always full with my children’s choices and we can never decide what programmes to wipe.

It doesn’t take that many hours of The Simpsons, South Park, Friends, The Osbournes and music videos to fill up the hard disc, which means that every time we record anything new we have to make some tough decisions. Do we really need that BBC4 Peter Brook production of Hamlet that we still haven’t got round to watching but makes us feel more intellectual? Or do we just zap The Simpsons and Friends?

In the meantime, how many viewers like me dedicated their evenings last week to BBC Choice? According to the overnight figures, the 24 repeats averaged around 83,000, rising to 100,000 by the end of the week. 188,000 viewers then chose to watch the final episode on BBC Choice, compared with 2.9 million on BBC2.

The question now is whether I can discipline my viewing sufficiently to join the nine out of ten who “never miss a favourite programme” in time for the next series.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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