I want my DVR  


The students who filled Houston Hall’s Class of ’49 Auditorium for the Oct. 6 Fox Speakers Forum were eager to hear what the panelists from NBC, Comcast and Columbia Business School had to say about the evening’s topic—the future of the media. The panelists, in turn, were anxious to know more about their audience.

As Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC, noted, knowing more about young people’s media habits—and keeping up with them—is vital to success in the lightening paced world of communications. “In fact, he said, “I’m a little scared of you.”

One of the technologies the youth market has seized upon is TiVO, a digital video recording system (DVR) that enables viewers to watch their favorite TV shows at their own convenience, without being shackled to a program schedule. Comcast now offers DVR service to its digital customers for just $5 extra a month, making it an easy, inexpensive decision—and making network executives very nervous, since viewers can now easily fast forward through the advertisements that are the lifeblood of traditional television.

“What do DVR’s mean?” asked panel moderator Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication. “Are they just high falutin’ video recorders or something more?”
NBC’s Wurtzel acknowledged TiVO’s  threat to his industry but claimed it was overblown, since “most TV is still being watched live.” The most serious impact he sees is in getting a “critical mass of eyeballs” in front of new shows. “The way we launch shows is we find a hit and put a new show behind it. People with TiVO don’t think about program schedules, and why would they record a new show? If we can’t follow a new show with a hit like ‘Desperate Housewives’ that’s a big problem.”

Media analyst Tom Wolzien sees a “giant value transfer” taking place where “time shifting and skipping ads” is becoming more and more valuable to consumers, which in turn is “sucking the money out of the networks and giving it to the cable companies.” The industry has evolved from three networks to “a gazillion potential channels,” plus the web, said Wolzien, but an imbalance exists between the increase in capacity and the dollars to support it. The result for the viewer, he said, is lots of talking heads. “Talk is cheap, and in TV nothing is cheaper than talk, so they get people to come in and yell at each other.” 

At risk in this new era of user-controlled content, said Wurtzel, is the traditional advertiser-supported model. “And if the money that flows to the networks dries up, you, the user, will end up paying directly.”

Eli Noam, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, characterized the situation as a “market failure in news” and pointed to similar challenges being faced by newspapers, where leaders such as The New York Times are now charging online users to read their favorite columnists in a bid to recoup dollars lost to dwindling subscriptions. New “news” formats, such as blogs and citizen journalism—including the popular Wikinews.org volunteer news operation—are quickly springing up as alternatives, noted Noam.

Another alternative is late night TV. “Our generation gets its news from Jon Stewart,” said an audience member, who asked the panel why network news can’t offer up a similar personality. Wurtzel countered that “sometimes the news just isn’t funny,” and commented that trying to appeal to the young with traditional journalism is a losing battle. While cable, in his view, is failing in its reporting of the news, the network news is still the place for real journalism.

Delli Carpini, officially the evening’s moderator rather than a panelist, interjected that though he hoped people didn’t get all their news from the “Daily Show” comedian, “there’s a strong case to be made that Jon Stewart is better than anything on cable news and in some cases more subtle and sophisticated than what’s on the network news.” The assembled crowd cheered. The panelists, perhaps, took note.

Originally published on October 20, 2005