How to Predict the End of DVRs (Already?!)

I will carry to my grave some pearls I threw out to my college students 15-20 years ago. I made some predictions that came true, not because I'm a soothsayer, but because I understand history. Well, even knowing media history is not enough. If you want to know what's coming down the pike (I cringe a little at giving out my secret to my social science and humanities colleagues), just go to a large telecommunications engineering and/or marketing convention. I learned more about where we were headed by attending the annual National Communications Forum run by the National Engineering Consortium, formerly in Chicago in early fall.

OK, you know I'm an engineer, right? Wrong! I'm your average intelligent guy who does seem to have a handle on seeing the media future. Was it predictable that cable/satellite television would become a system of channels with a theme? Well, it shouldn't have been. We already had radio teach us this. When television took programs and stars away from radio, radio changed. As more and more stations went on the air (including the entire FM band), radio stations found ways to distinguish themselves with listeners: format radio. Listen to this station for news, another for rock 'n roll, one for easy listening, soon for album-oriented rock. I remember challenging the idea that radio is local. The jocks might (and I mean might) be (Wolfman Jack had a show in Columbus, Ohio, and he was sure to tell the audience what the Buckeyes had done that afternoon; but he wasn't there, only tapes of him including grunts and uh-huh's, etc.). Radio from city to city began to run with the same rules of music success.

What could this mean for cable television from the vantage point of about 1980? Everything. In an early post, I waxed poetic about a paper I wrote as an undergrad about the future of cable TV: rock concert station, all Westerns, all weather, all sports, and the possibility that CBS and friends would sound like BBC by having, for example, CBS 1 (entertainment), CBS 2 (news and documentaries), and CBS 3 (sports).

I also told my students in the 1980s as VCRs took off that the days of the VCR were numbered for one simple reason: random access. Fast forwarding or rewinding a tape to go from one point to another in the program (whether entertainment or educational) just would not be able to hold a candle to future disc formats where the "playback head" (a laser) would be able to go a tiny fraction of the distance on the medium to go from point A to point K in the program. First we had DVDs that had the fastest growth rate of any home video technology in history. We learned, perhaps awkwardly, that we could return to a favorite scene at any time. Now, if you don't have your first DVR, ask anyone who does and 97 times out of 100 they will sing its praises.

OK, so I tried to persuade anyone who would listen starting in 2002 that TiVo and DVRs were in a position to revolutionize not just commercial TV, but even public/educational television (simple DVR recording of programming in the wee hours of the morning, for example). Now every cable and satellite player has its own DVR and TiVo is still hanging in there. Will DVRs die an unexpectedly early death? Well, non-techies out there, you know (or let me tell you) that the "digital memory" business does not rest on its laurels. I will continue this in the next post.

You may use this content (better still, argue with me!), but please cite my ideas as © 2006, Dr. Bruce Klopfenstein. Find any typos! Don't smite me, let me know!


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