TiVo's Bolt DVR lets you skip TV ads with the touch of a button

Tivo's new Bolt DVR allows viewers to instantly skip over commercial blocks. A similar feature introduced by Dish in 2012 resulted in lawsuits from broadcasters. Why is TiVo's approach any different?

TiVo/AP
The TiVo Bolt DVR allows users to skip over commercial breaks with the touch of a button, though the service costs $150 per year and doesn't work with all channels.

Tivo is following in the footsteps of Dish Network's "Hopper."

TV broadcasters have had an uneasy relationship over the past several years with automatic ad-skipping technology. Back in 2012, the major US networks sued Dish Network over AutoHop, a DVR feature known as "The Hopper," that allowed viewers to black out commercial on shows they’d recorded earlier, and eventually undermined the feature through contract negotiations with Dish. 

This past January, a US federal judge rejected Fox's claims that the Dish's Hopper violated copyrights. But the judge allowed Fox to pursue claims on whether Dish violated a contract governing distribution of Fox programming. CBS Corp. and Walt Disney Co.’s ABC settled similar litigation last year, allowing Dish to broadcast the networks’ programs, reported The Wrap.

Now, TiVo is introducing a similar function in its Bolt DVR, launched on Wednesday.

The Tivo Bolt includes a “SkipMode” feature that automatically jumps over commercial breaks with the press of a button. The feature will work on the top 20 broadcast and cable networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. TiVo automatically tags the start and end of commercial blocks, so viewers can skip over them all at once, rather than fast-forwarding in 30-second increments the way they could on previous TiVo devices.

There are a few restrictions on SkipMode: It doesn’t work on local news shows or sports broadcasts, TiVo says, and it’s only enabled between the hours of 4 p.m. and midnight. The feature also costs about $150 per year, though the first year comes for free with the DVR itself. SkipMode isn’t enabled by default, which is part of TiVo’s strategy to avoid raising the ire of broadcasters and advertisers.

“We're not changing the underlying content,” TiVo Vice President Jim Denney told the Associated Press. “We're not auto-eliminating commercials. The user does it. We're giving users a tool to get through their content more quickly.”

In other words: The Bolt DVR doesn’t take away any of the value of commercials; it simply provides viewers with an (optional) way to watch shows they way they want to. Advertisers would argue that part of the fundamental value of TV commercials comes from the fact that they’re shown to a captive audience. But then again, maybe skipping over ads is more or less the same as heading to the kitchen for a snack when a commercial break begins.

The TiVo Bolt also has a “QuickMode” feature that speeds up recorded shows by 30 percent, without altering the pitch of the audio. By using QuickMode and skipping commercials, TiVo says, viewers can get through an hour-long show in about half an hour. It’s designed for “slow-moving programs like news, sports, and overly long award shows,” TiVo said in a blog post.

The Bolt can also pump out video in ultra-HD 4K resolution – a vanity feature for TV, since no American broadcasters use that format yet, but potentially useful for streaming services such as Netflix that offer 4K content.

The Wall Street Journal's Geoffrey A. Fowler notes that Tivo isn't yet "the one box that rules all of TV in my home." He writes:

"TiVo needs access to an ever-growing array of online content. It’s got Netflix and YouTube (in 4K) as well as Amazon (soon in 4K) but at launch the Bolt is missing Hulu, which had been available on previous models. TiVo says that’s just because it changed its software, and Hulu will come soon."

A TiVo Bolt with 500 GB of storage will cost just under $300, while one with 1 TB of storage will cost just under $400.

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