The TV industry has been lobbying against consumer freedom since the first VCR made its way into the first home. To its credit, the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that people were perfectly within their rights to tape programs off the air and watch them whenever they wanted to. (The music industry hasn’t quite heard the news yet, but that’s a rant for another day.)
In the last few years, the tape in some VCRs has been replaced with a hard drive, giving rise to the TiVO and Replay products. The improvements are essentially three-fold. The new DVRs (digital video recorders) let you pause live TV, provide an enhanced program guide, and can automatically recommend and record programs based on your viewing habits. Like a VCR, you can zip forward and back through a program, skipping whatever part you might want to skip. Like opening credits. Like commercials.
As does anyone who makes his living in the media, I am perfectly aware that my salary is paid by commercials. I even like commercials, because they are (sometimes) entertaining and (sometimes) provide interesting information that I would not ordinarily know. In a magazine, I can turn the page when I want. In the TV business, that prospect makes networks and broadcasters nuts.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, a federal magistrage in Los Angeles has ordered SonicBlue, which makes Replay, to write software that will track the every click of every user’s remote control. Why? Because Replay is getting sued. There’s a button on the Replay remote that lets its customers instantly jump over commercials (it’s a little harder to do this with TiVO), and the networks and broadcasters say that’s costing them money. They’ve persuaded the good judge that the way people use Replay products is germane, and the only way to track that is to invade the privacy of Replay’s customers.
(I would say that Replay’s hands are not entirely clean here. The Replay 4000 includes an Ethernet port that lets users transmit programming to other people over the Net. This strikes me as just begging for trouble.)
There’s a federal law that says video store rental records must be kept confidential. The law was passed after the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had some interesting viewing habits. Anyone know if Mr. Justice Thomas is a Replay customer?