Making TV jump through hoops

New technology lets you dictate when and where you watch your favorite shows.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Brrrinng!!! My alarm blares Sunday at 8 a.m., just in time to watch "Meet the Press." I glance up at the TV and notice the red light of my TiVo box is on - Tim Russert's news program is recording. I drift back to sleep, knowing I can watch it later.

But I end up oversleeping and then stay out until late that night. How will I fit the show into my schedule? Those ubiquitous ads for the Apple iPod Video, telling me I can now download my favorite television shows commercial-free, got me thinking: Can I really watch what I want, when I want, where I want? Are the days of rushing home from work for "Must-See TV" a thing of the past? Or remembering to set my VCR so I don't miss "CSI"? Or even having to plant myself on the couch for an hour straight? I'm about to find out. Over the next seven days, I'm going to try viewing TV on my own timetable, not the networks'.

"TV on demand" is a hot new buzzword. Between iTunes, digital video recorders like TiVo, cellphones and PDAs that play movies, and countless streaming options over the Internet, it's becoming a reality, wresting the power of TV programming from network executives, putting it squarely in viewers' hands.

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Consuming TV shows in this way takes a bit of effort, as it turns out. And, by Day 7, the experience gives me pause as to whether it's truly a good idea. Nonetheless, I'm clearly at the forefront of a major trend in media consumption.

"Time shifting is the big thing at the moment," says Mark Glaser, who runs the PBS MediaShift online blog. "It's being able to watch what you want, when you want it, beyond just what we have now, but having complete demand to watch any show possible."

Turning my cellphone into a television

On my first day, I search the Internet and discover that I can load my TiVo files onto my Windows-based mobile phone. I buy the software (Pocket-DVD Studio, $39.95) and dive in. First, I move the TiVo recording onto my desktop with Tivo's own program, called "TiVoToGo." It runs in real time - meaning an hour show takes that long to copy. So I get ready for bed and answer a few e-mails.

Now I'm ready to put it on my cellphone, which is also a PDA - an iPaq from HP - with a 1 GB memory card. I open my new software and let it run (also in real time - more e-mails get answered). It shrinks the file so that it doesn't fill up my device's memory the way the iTunes videos do. Once this is done, I can plop the file onto my cellphone faster than I can say Tim Russert. Presto! Ready to watch anytime I want the next day. I drop into bed.

It's fair to say that for now, given the time and money (for software and large memory card), only the determined TV-time-shifter is going to put up with these logistics. However, as content providers scramble to keep up with the highly mobile expectations of the next generation, other options are springing up.

"There are actually three different platforms right now," says Cyriac Roeding, vice president for CBS Digital Media, referring to the Internet; devices that stream live video, such as cellphones and PDAs; and iPods and MP3 players. "The future is to combine these media and bring them together in a well-functioning way," he says, noting for example that CBS has just announced plans for a soap opera designed to run exclusively on a cellphone. Fox has already tried something similar - the network recently ran a series of "mobisodes," short episodes of the thriller "24," tailored to the cellphone. Mr. Roeding acknowledges Fox's effort by adding, "It's about creating something like '24' in the future that is so engaging that someone will want to do it on all four platforms at once."

Dinner with Brian Williams

News programs top my list on Days 2 through 5. If I want to stick with the packaged newscasts, the "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" is now available on the Internet on demand after 10 p.m. EST/7 PT. I watch it on my wireless laptop while I'm preparing dinner.

On Day 5, I decide to check in on the iTunes offerings. Many people (including me) have been disappointed at how slim the iTunes menu of TV offerings is. Even so, I am happy to see that I can catch up on the USA Network show, "Monk." I pay $1.99 and download the episode, which I watch that night on my iPod.

While I'm sitting in the living room, my son (who used his Christmas money to buy an iPod Video) comes in holding the sleek, black unit connected to white cords. He plugs his iPod into the TV on the other side of the room. In a flash, he catches up on his favorite TV show, "The Office," which he has also purchased from iTunes. I watch his show for a while, then turn back to my own. Some shows actually benefit from the tight focus of headphones and a close screen.

By Day 6 I'm scanning my menu of shows on TiVo to see if there's anything I won't mind seeing on a small screen. I have an episode of the new NBC show "E-Ring" which I haven't watched yet. I transfer it to my cellphone and head out for some errands. I can catch up on Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper while waiting to buy stamps and make a bank deposit.

I'm certainly not the only "wired" person at the bank or the post office. But the use of such portable TV devices is largely youth-driven, says Brad Adgate, research director for Horizon Media, an independent media company. "It's a generational issue right now," he says, pointing out that most under-30s can't imagine life without being mobile and connected. As costs go down and connection speeds increase, others will follow their lead, Mr. Adgate says. He points out that mobile and broadband video are commonplace in Japan and Korea, where downloading is faster and cheaper.

Master of the TV, or slave to it?

As my week concludes, I suddenly realize that if I'm not careful I'll watch shows simply because I can now do it anywhere, any time. Plus, I've recorded them and something inside me says, "You have to catch up!" But do I really? Or does all that extra time I thought I'd gain get soaked up with more viewing?

"Our culture is really good at creating wants," says Nancy Snow, assistant professor of communication at California State University at Fullerton. "But you have to ask, 'If everyone is wired up to their own needs, what are the consequences for communication? What about the simple ability to be quiet with your own thoughts for a moment?' "

Day 7 winds down, and I notice that I'm late for "60 Minutes." It's also time for dinner. Not to worry, TiVo is recording it. Will I watch it later? Maybe. Maybe not.

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