On a recent Late Night With Conan O'Brien, guest Andy Richter (Conan's sorely missed sidekick) deadpanned his way through a gay spoof of The Bachelor, in which Andy had to choose between two of the show's schlumpy band members.
"You guys seem very happy," Conan prompted, after Andy revealed his amore.
"He's got TiVo," Andy said, shrugging, as if that made the choice a no-brainer.
TiVo -- the magic box that lets you "time-shift" TV shows (i.e., record them with a level of ease and automation that makes VCRs instantly obsolete) and that auto-records shows it thinks you'll like -- is the consumer-technology cult item du jour. At the expense of its competition, ReplayTV, it's become the generic term for the entire digital-video-recorder category ("I TiVoed it") and even the subject of an extended comedic riff in the The Wall Street Journal titled IF TIVO THINKS YOU'RE GAY, HERE'S HOW TO SET IT STRAIGHT.
But the truth is, TiVo's only as good as what you feed it. And all the focus on TiVo has obscured a larger cultural shift, particularly in New York City: With its 250 channels, digital cable (DTV), often in conjunction with TiVo, is spurring a new sort of highbrow, socially acceptable cocooning.
In New York, we've now got DTV critical mass. It's available in every neighborhood, and already half of Time Warner's 1.3 million metro-area cable customers have upgraded -- despite the hassle of getting a new box installed and paying a minimum $9.95 premium over standard cable.
Suddenly it's okay to admit to watching more than just The Simpsons or The Sopranos. You get digital cable and you're an instant TV connoisseur: While the sap next door is watching Everybody Loves Raymond, you're delighting to Behind the Music That Sucks on MuchMusic USA (the wry stateside spinoff of the Canadian music-video channel) or catching a lucid dispatch from a Middle East BBC correspondent who isn't reflexively cheerleading regime change.
DTV's compelling enough on its own. But combine digital cable with TiVo and the nascent miracle of something called video-on-demand, and, well . . . it's quite possible half the city might never leave home again.
I first started noticing New York's new TV culture when my TV broke. One day this fall, my nine-year-old twenty-inch Panasonic went permanently dark; the traumatic prospect of buying a replacement (shopper's paralysis) kept my apartment TV-free for almost three months.
I was abruptly roused to a new reality: I'd been losing my friends, without even having noticed it, to digital cable and TiVo. Nobody wanted to go out anymore. Rory? Home watching a documentary on Showtime Women. Seth? Riveted by a twenty-year-old basketball game on NBA TV. Dan? Watching a movie he missed at the Angelika on the Sundance Channel.
Some of my friends TiVo programs of their own choosing. Others take TiVo's recommendations. But most of my friends, actually, are still TiVo-less (this is very much an early-adopter phenomenon, with only 510,000 subscribers nationwide), and so they just flip on their DTV and find something to watch.
"I remember that when I first moved to New York," Rory says, "no one copped to watching TV. It was like, 'Morgan Entrekin this, Gary Fisketjon that.' And now it's like, 'Books? You mean those things that look like TV Guide, only heavier?' "
It could be that, as New Yorkers with heightened ironic sensibilities, we're even more susceptible to the lowbrow splendors of the digital-cable gigaplex than average, less irony-equipped Americans (now, that's ironic!). "These days, it's not unusual for me," Rory continues, "to answer the phone to a frantic 'Channel 115! Now!' from a friend who wants me to catch a moment of a mother on her motel bed, eating buffalo wings, bitching about the unfair judging in a kiddie beauty pageant. So many fascinating documentaries about the most mundane stuff!"
But digital TV doesn't even need to be high-concept to seduce: "I'll watch any Celtics game from the eighties, when Bird and McHale and D.J. were all playing," Seth confesses. "A while ago, they replayed an entire playoff game from 1988, which actually made me late for a dinner party."
If the new TV culture is, for many, about old TV culture -- i.e., largely a retro experience -- it's thanks to some futuristic technology that still seems like the stuff of science fiction. I've been testing Time Warner Cable's digital-TV package, including its new video-on-demand feature, in tandem with a TiVo. And you know what? They're beautiful products -- beautifully conceived, beautifully executed. (So far my TiVo doesn't seem to think I'm gay, but I'm pretty sure it is.) The boxes are sleek and the remote controls are minor triumphs of ergonomic design. But it's what's on-screen -- particularly the interactive program guides that let you find out what's on any channel hours or days ahead -- that makes DTV and TiVo so enthralling.
"How did any of us live without those guides?" my friend Kate asks. "I was at a dinner where a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics sheepishly admitted that he'll routinely spend an hour just playing with the program guide. It gives you so much control."
But for those who fear the cracklike addictiveness of DTV, TiVo can seem like a lifeline. The Season Pass function, which lets you record an entire season of, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm, in one fell swoop is well known, but I've been having the most fun with the WishList feature. It basically lets you Google your TV. For instance, I've got a soft spot for the endearingly idiotic Canadian pop-punk band Sum 41. By WishListing the band's name using my remote, I got TiVo to track down three Sum 41 specials that I never would have found out about otherwise.
Everyone who has TiVo told me that "it will change your life," and so far it has. Then again, every new tech toy does -- for a while. So I ask Steve, the person I know who's had TiVo the longest, what he thinks of it. "I recently visited my parents," he tells me, "and I nearly became insane. Who are these people? Who could live like this? We watched football without replay in slo-mo, and it was like being in a dark, dark age."
The reality is that, because they're still (relatively) pricey cult products ($200 to $400 for the box, with a monthly $12.95 service fee), TiVos are not about to blanket the land like DTV. TiVo Inc. itself predicts that it will only hit the 1 million subscriber mark by the end of 2004.
In fact, if television is on the verge of a new, technology-driven golden age, much of it will be thanks to TiVo-like functions that are rolling out on digital cable right now. On Channel 1000 on Time Warner Cable, DTV subscribers can choose from more than 100 recently released movies, "rent" them for $3.95 for a 24-hour period, and pause, rewind, and fast-forward them. (If you own Blockbuster stock, you're going to sell it as soon as you discover Channel 1000.)
But the real thrill, according to Rebecca Glashow of In Demand -- the New York company that provides video-on-demand (VOD) services and programming to cable operators across the country -- is going to come in the next month or so, when "Free on Demand" is phased in on Time Warner. "New Yorkers will soon have dozens of video-on-demand options," she says, including music videos and watch-'em-whenever-you-want shows from BBC America. Anybody who has Time Warner digital cable will automatically get this free VOD programming. (Cablevision customers in Long Island and parts of Westchester who get iO -- Interactive Optimum -- service already have their own version of VOD.)
Still, the cable-industry pros I talked to don't think the rise of VOD means the demise of TiVo. Glashow, for instance, foresees the cable box becoming a hybrid device that licenses TiVo technology (DirecTV already offers a $199 combination satellite receiver–TiVo box). VOD involves vast banks of costly computer servers, so over time only the most popular programming will likely rate hard-drive space at cable headquarters. Viewers will have to record more specialized stuff (like my Sum 41 shows) on their local (i.e., TiVo) hard drives.
At any rate, "VOD is already insane," says Glashow, "and it's just going to get better."
Of course, for TV-addled New Yorkers -- and the friends who miss them -- there's another way to look at it: It's only going to get worse.