Television

A Victory For DVRs Means Even More Bad News For Networks

A television and a remote

hide captionThe remote DVR: The Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for a new cable option.

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One of the few drawbacks of watching television on a DVR rather than live is that you have to have a physical device — either a separate product like a TiVo or a hard drive within your cable box — that stores the programs you want to watch. Yesterday, that drawback got a step closer to elimination when the Supreme Court declined to consider a legal challenge from content providers to a plan for the "remote DVR."

Cablevision in New York is preparing to launch a program where, instead of a hard drive in your house, your recorded programs would be stored on your cable company's remote servers, so you wouldn't have to have a physical hard drive. Cablevision says it will make DVR use easier and less expensive.

And the network and cable content providers seem to agree, given that they're pursuing a legal challenge, claiming that it's one thing for you to record and save their programs in your house for personal use (not something they always admitted you had any right to do, by the way), but it's another thing for Cablevision to save the programs for you offsite. That, they say, violates their copyright.

(Interestingly, it looks like one of the important features of this program is that Cablevision won't simply store one central copy of something that can be accessed by any of the people who have asked to record it. In order to preserve this idea that it's just off-site storage and not unlicensed on-demand programming, they have to store a separate identical copy of the same show for each subscriber.)

The broadcasters lost the last round of maneuvering and asked the Supreme Court to intervene, which, yesterday, it decided not to do. That means Cablevision gets to roll out the remote-DVR option for its subscribers later this year.

That could mean big changes for the existing viewership model.

The possible effects of remote storage and the hard life of a broadcast (or even cable) network, after the jump...

As the L.A. Times notes, this change to the physical way programs are recorded could make it even less necessary to ever watch anything live — it could allow you to record as many things at once as you want, and it could even allow unlimited storage, depending on the capacity of the Cablevision servers.

Obviously, this is all very bad news for networks, which already struggle with the implications of DVR viewing, where ads can be skipped, and which are already trying to adapt to online viewing and every other technological change that's trying to kill them.

Moreover, imagine what unlimited storage might mean to DVD sales and online sales of episodes, which have become significant revenue streams. A curious viewer could potentially save an entire season of a show to watch later — maybe in the summer, or in a year, or in two years. Or own your favorite show forever, just by storing it with your cable company. Why buy it on DVD? (Yes, it wouldn't be the same as ownership, in that it would simply be licensed and not owned, but for a lot of people, that difference won't drive them to pay $50 to own a season on DVD when they can just watch it whenever.)

It seems that hardly a day passes without a big fat dose of bad news for people who make ad-supported television. Skipping commercials gets easier, watching online gets easier, and everybody hates product placement. And now, the DVR may be about to take a giant leap forward in both convenience and capacity. You've got to think there is some serious yoga for relaxation going on in a lot of executive offices these days.

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