Let's fast-forward to the very near future and see what a typical night of television viewing will be like:
You get home from work and watch your favorite hour-long soap opera in 40 minutes. You watch the nightly news in 15. "Seinfeld" in 21. "Monday Night Football" in 26, and a World Series game in about 20.
It will be easy to watch everything that quickly - just skip the commercials. And everything else you'd rather not watch, such as time-outs, pitching changes, close-up-and-personals, movie credits and those boring talking heads.
What makes this possible is the personal video recorder, or PVR, a box with a hard drive inside that connects to your set and offers remarkable control over live television - or almost-live television. With services such as ReplayTV and TiVo, the leaders in the PVR market, you can surf through a broadcast as though you were rewinding, fast-forwarding and pausing a videocassette.
The technology is sure to change the way American households use their TV sets, and some backers predict that commercial-zappers will mean the end of mass-market television. Commercials have paid for network TV for a half-century, but no one knows what will happen if millions of couch potatoes are armed with remote controls that can blast ads off the screen at the touch of a "skip" button.
"The idea here is to put control into the viewer's hands," says Jim Hollingsworth, a senior vice president at ReplayTV, which is based in Mountain View, Calif. "And part of that is definitely the ability to skip advertisers that don't interest you. The feedback we're getting is that our users definitely find that feature appealing."
So far, only a handful of users are zapping away, at least in terms of the massive TV market. Last year, only 18,000 people bought PVRs, which range in price from $500 to $800. But analysts say they expect the number of buyers will grow to 500,000 by the end of this year.
TiVo, based in Alviso, Calif., has signed up more than 50,000 subscribers in the past eight months.
Investors have poured more than $200 million into TiVo and ReplayTV. Forrester Research predicts that the recorders will "become the most successful new consumer electronics products in history."
"Our TiVo is kind of irreplaceable in our house right now," says Steve Pospisil, 37, a businessman from Abingdon and an early adopter of the technology. "It's so easy and mindless. We really are kind of creating our own programming whenever we watch TV."
So how does it work?
Think of TiVo and ReplayTV as VCRs on steroids. Like old-fashioned videocassette recorders, they can be programmed to capture shows ahead of time, but they store up to 30 hours of broadcasts - 10 times the capacity of any tape.
More importantly, they can play and record at the same time, which allows them to create a small but critical time warp.
Whenever you tune in, the box starts to record the broadcast on its hard drive, a process known in the trade as "buffering." Since everything you see on your screen is being recorded, you can rewind back to any part of the buffer.
If you miss a line in a movie, you can hit a button on your remote and it will skip back. Sports fanatics can watch plays over and over during a live broadcast, because even while the box is rewinding, it's still recording ahead.
Once you're through watching the replay, you fast-forward till you reach the "live" action.
"We can't live without it - I'm hooked," says Lee Schuman, 51, a Sykesville resident and liquor company president who watches ReplayTV with his wife and five cats. "It makes TV perform at your schedule and the way you want it to. I'm addicted to 'One Life to Live' and I can always see the show now whenever I want, and can easily cut out the commercials."
To get rid of commercials in "live" broadcasts, users can start the recorder at the beginning of the show and watch it themselves about 15 minutes later. If they time it right, they can zap all the advertising without quite catching up to the real-time transmission. Chopping commercials this way can shorten hour-long programs to 46 minutes.
From three hours to one
In a test last week using NBC's much-criticized Olympics coverage, TiVo's fast-forward button whittled a three-hour broadcast full of commercials, ceaseless talk and color fillers down to 58 minutes of real action.
How personal video recorders will affect TV advertising is still unclear. Coca-Cola and Universal Pictures recently announced plans to advertise on ReplayTV. Coke's trademark polar bear, for example, will show up on ReplayTV's on-screen menus.
But many traditional network advertisers may have to change their approach. Taking no chances, NBC has investments in both ReplayTV and TiVo, and wants to come up with a TV advertising model for the future.
"Our feeling is that this is all going somewhere and we'd like to be involved with it from the ground floor up," says NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Tompkins. "As television evolves, we want to be there with it. ...We'll figure it out as we go along, because I don't think anyone knows yet where the future is going."
At CBS, though, officials say they're not worried about ReplayTV and TiVo.
"This summer we had one of the largest mass-market television successes with Survivor," says Dana McClintock, CBS' vice president of communications. "It seems to me that broadcast networks are going through an incredible resurgence and that advertisers still seem to be wanting to sponsor them more than ever."
Some analysts think it's time for a change in the way America watches TV commercials, and that personal video recorders will be the catalyst.
Paul Farris, a professor and advertising expert at the University of Virginia's Darden Business School, notes that in Germany, commercials are clustered at certain times of the day and are not shown during programs as they are here.
"Television advertising can be just as effective in another format," Farris says. "It doesn't have to always be done the way we've been doing it. ... For the most part, I think what this signals is that companies from now on will have to do a better job of advertising in order to hold the public's attention."
TiVo spokeswoman Rebecca Baer says PVRs could force advertisers to target commercials based on location, or on demographic data TiVo collects.
"Advertising has to become more relevant to targeted audiences and it has to be more pertinent," Baer says. "Exactly what that looks like, we don't know specifically. Maybe you won't have commercials interspersed, or maybe it'll be more like a movie preview. But it should show you ads that you want to see."
This targeting worries privacy advocates, who are concerned because both devices use a built-in modem to download program listings every night - and possibly pass information about viewing habits back to TiVo and ReplayTV. Although both companies say they don't collect personal information about viewing habits without permission, they have that technical capability.
Beth Givens, head of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer information group, argues that video providers like TiVo and ReplayTV need tight regulation.
"Any time you establish two-way communication, your TV can become a snooping agent and record and transmit information about the shows you're watching," Givens says. "That's information that has a tremendous market value for these companies and is a great temptation for them to collect."
In California, state Sen. Debra Bowen proposed a law that would have made it a crime for any video service provider to disclose any personal information or television viewing habits unless the customer "opts in" to allow the data to be collected and sold. But the bill was killed after strong opposition from Microsoft and America Online.
Bowen is still an outspoken critic of video service providers and says they represent the next frontier of electronic privacy invasion.
'It's nobody's business'
"It's nobody's business if your kids are watching 'Meet the Press' on Sunday morning or you're ordering the highlights of Michigan State's championship basketball season on pay-per-view," she says. "When folks relied on rabbit ears and rooftop antennas, you only had to close the drapes to prevent people from seeing what you had on television, but today's technology lets companies 'see' everything you watch, build a record on your viewing habits, then sell it to others."
TiVo's Baer acknowledges that the company has the capability to gather "anonymous information", which she says can be used to get a slice of the audience's viewing habits. For instance, the data collected could be used to show how many of TiVo's users watched the TV series "Friends" on a particular night, she says, but users' names wouldn't be collected.
For most users, these debates are academic, the kind of thing they would fast-forward through if they were watching on television.
Like Cary Luskin, they're focused on commercial-free viewing. Luskin is president of the Big Screen Store chain and distributes a personal video recorder called DishPlayer, which integrates his satellite receiver with a PVR. It's not a hard sell for him, because he uses it all the time.
"It's the future," Luskin says. "The amount of time you save watching TV is just mind-boggling."