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TiVo's move into Canada is smarter than it seems

Last Updated November 27, 2007

Jesse Hirsh is a broadcaster, researcher and internet consultant based in Toronto. He appears regularly on CBC Newsworld and CBC radio, writes for CBCNews.ca and hosts an interfaith TV show called 3D Dialogue for OMNI/Rogers.

The introduction of the TiVo service in Canada is significant, as it marks the further advance of useful — and easy-to-use — artificial intelligence in our everyday lives.

Many Canadians already have personal video recorders (PVRs) supplied by the cable and satellite companies, but the official rollout and promotion of the TiVo service in Canada represents something that only a few Canadian early TiVo adopters have been taking advantage of up to now. TiVo is more than just a device that can record television: It is as an intelligent assistant helping the TV viewer manage the 500-channel universe. The power and ease of this service is why TiVo has become a verb in the U.S., with people saying they will "TiVo a show" rather than "tape" or "record."

The base functionality of a PVR is the ability to record television shows for later viewing. It's comparable to a VCR, but instead of using tapes, a PVR is basically a computer and the video is recorded on its hard drive.

The service that TiVo offers for a monthly fee is far greater than a stand-alone PVR device. It's an intelligent assistant combined with an online directory that makes the navigation and management of TV content incredibly easy. While we seem to have less time for leisure, the explosion of specialty and digital channels means there's more content on television. TiVo organizes our shows, keeps an eye open for items that would interest us based on our preferred types of programming, and can be set up to record everything associated with a particular show, actor, performer or sports team.

The ability to buffer and record TV means subscribers can rewind live shows, and also fast-forward (as long as part of the show is buffered), which comes in handy for skipping commercials. But the combination of an online schedule and the ability to bookmark content for recording is one of the features that really sets TiVo apart from other devices that don't involve an additional service. For example, you can get a "season pass" for a show, which means TiVo will automatically get every episode broadcast. You can also manage a "wish list" that can include, say, a favourite actor, and any time that actor appears in a show or movie the TiVo will save it for you.

Over time, TiVo also gets to know your interests and has the ability to make recommendations on shows or content that you may enjoy. This practical application of artificial intelligence is similar to how Amazon.com is able to learn from your book purchases and recommend other products it feels you might be interested in. While this may disturb some users, it can also be quite valuable, as it helps point you to new shows and movies that you might enjoy but otherwise be oblivious too.

Programming away from home

Another aspect of the TiVo not available on PVRs provided by the cable companies is the ability to access and program the device remotely. If you're out of town or out of the house and want your machine to record something specific, you can log in via the web and control your TiVo. Once you've recorded a show, you can also copy it to other TiVos, or to media devices like an iPod or media phone, as well as to your computer. In this respect, the TiVo is more than just a next-generation VCR; it is a multimedia hub in the living room that connects all of your devices and computers.

It is, however, worth pointing out another capability of the TiVo that sets it apart from other devices. The service collects and generates all sorts of statistics regarding how people use it and what content they consume. For example, the system monitors which advertisements are skipped (and not skipped), what shows are recorded, as well as more detailed info such as the content of "wish lists" and other profile data generated by people using the devices.

Some speculate that the future for TiVo is in gathering market data and generating targeted advertising, rather than just providing a TV service.

TiVo has generated a lot of fear in the TV and advertising industry, since it gives the viewer more power to choose what to watch and when, to skip commercials, and so on. However, unlike online black markets for video downloads, TiVo seeks to work with the industry to find new models of revenue generation. In fact, TiVo has experimented with its own advertising system, modelled on the way the web works, with targeted ads that become part of the TiVo environment that frames the TV viewing experience, in other words, advertising that you can't fast-forward through easily.

Given that TiVo collects incredible amounts of information on its users, it would be relatively straightforward for the service to do what Google already does: Allow advertisers to access these users directly via their "browsing" environment. TiVo could then further incorporate these ads into programs themselves, either via pre-roll before a recording begins or in place of skipped commercials.

The problem, of course, is that many people subscribe to the TiVo service in large part so they can skip ads. So TiVo will have to balance this culture with a need to demonstrate to content providers that it is willing to develop new revenue models. Perhaps a future TiVo subscription would include a slightly higher monthly price that's entirely ad-free, with a portion of the monthly fees being put into a general fund to be distributed to content in proportion to its popularity.

Providers aiming for IPTV

All of this represents a move towards IPTV, or television delivered over Internet Protocol. After all, TiVo is just a computer with a user-friendly menu and useful service. The international competition is going to heat up, with Apple, Microsoft, Google and Sony (to name a few) all working on new products and services that tap into this market.

In Canada, all the carriers/service providers — Rogers, Shaw, Express Vu and so on — already provide PVR devices, and TiVo is a relatively late entrant to the market. However, its service is far easier to use and provides features still not available with basic PVRs, so if TiVo is successful at negotiating partnerships with the Canadian TV industry, it has a good chance to rapidly grow in the market. Stay tuned.

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