Redefining the Home Screen: Technological Convergence as Trauma and Business Plan
by William Boddy

Every electronic media product launch or network debut carries with it an implicit fantasy scenario of its domestic consumption, a polemical ontology of its medium, and an ideological rationale for its social function. The scattered public record of these self-representations, in the ephemeral forms of TV commercials, corporate press releases, and trade-press reporting, can offer insights into the larger contexts and implicit assumptions within which media firms operate. The current period of confusion and conflict among the would-be architects of our putative post-television age offers a productive site to investigate the ways in which wider social, technological, and political changes may deform or put into crisis such calculated representations of media apparatus and artifact. The shifting boundaries between analogue and digital, cinema and television, and broadcasting and the Internet, throw into question traditional critical oppositions between domestic and public media reception, active and passive scenarios of consumption, and authored and non-authored texts. As powerful firms within and outside the television industry improvise strategies of competition and alliance around the introduction of digital products and services, new self-serving fantasies of the medium's nature and use will undoubtedly be offered to consumers and policy-makers. We have much to learn in attending to such frankly commercial discourses, despite their ephemeral nature and regardless of their ultimate accuracy, for such instrumental fantasies of consumption can speak eloquently of the larger cultural ambivalence regarding new communications technologies. This paper represents a modest effort toward this larger goal through an examination of the introduction of a new consumer product in the US, the digital "personal video recorder" or PVR.

One way to assess the significance of technological innovations such as the PVR is to chart their impact upon traditional assumptions about television and its audience, assumptions themselves informed by specific historical forces within and outside of the television industry. The current turmoil around the transition to digital standards throws into stark relief how far the industry has moved from the instrumental fantasies of reception, ontology, and national identity associated with the era of network television in the United States from the 1940s into the 1980s. The first four decades of postwar American television, dominated by the formidable economic and cultural power of three network firms, is noteworthy beyond the phenomenal economic prosperity and relative structural stability that the TV industry enjoyed. As commercial television was consolidated within American economic and cultural life, a remarkably consistent and enduring set of ideas about the general nature and function of the television medium was also elaborated. Responding in complex ways to the self-promoting discourses of industry groups, including network defenses of their economic power, a web of "common sensical," if largely implicit, propositions about the medium permeated public and trade discussions of the TV medium. These assumptions found a place within both popular and elite criticism of television, were invoked by both defenders and antagonists of the industry, and guided policy-makers and legislators concerned with the medium, sustaining an common image of television as quotidian, advertising-dominated, audio-driven, visually impoverished, female-centered, and passively consumed. In American media scholarship, it was not until the somewhat belated impact of cultural studies approaches to audience studies that such constructions underwent systematic revision. Unlike the cultural positioning of cinema in the US since the 1940s, increasingly associated with the possibilities for artistic status, personal expression, cosmopolitanism, and high cultural prestige, American television was generally construed in terms of its domesticity, liveness, and its role as an indispensable agent of national identity. The significance of the current period of technological innovation within moving-image culture is suggested by the ongoing erosion of the consensus regarding many of these traditional propositions about the nature and uses of commercial television.

Leaders of the three dominant US networks at the height of their enormous postwar prosperity and power had their own reasons for ratifying these imagined essentialized features of the medium. Countless network statements in the mid-1950s linked commercial television's role as nation-builder with the medium's purportedly all-powerful relationship with its domestic audience. In 1954, the year that CBS became the world's largest single advertising medium, CBS network president Frank Stanton told a gathering of journalists: "The most remarkable thing is what the Public does. Putting aside all other considerations, the public glues its eyes and ears to newspapers, loudspeakers and television tubes; seeing everything, hearing everything and--heaven help us all--believing everything." Stanton outlined the importance of the commercial media in constituting American national identity for such a credulous population: "We give America its daily consciousness of being a Nation. If it weren't for us, private individuals all, and private businesses all, America would not know where it stood or what it felt." Stanton concluded by defending television's role as nation-builder: "I am far from saying we are a perfect mirror, or even always a well-polished one,...but if this mirror were shattered, the National Countenance would disappear."[1]

The US television networks had specific motives in the mid-1950s for claiming the role of national looking glass and consciousness-maker. Two network firms, CBS and NBC, which controlled only 11 percent of television industry assets, took in an estimated 43 percent of total industry profits in 1955.[2] The previous year, CBS alone captured 28 percent of the profits of the entire television industry, boosted by an annual return of 1800 percent from the operation of its New York City station.[3] Given their vulnerability to public and regulatory complaints of monopoly power, the networks defended their monopoly on live provision of nationwide programming with appeals to national identity and necessity. For example, CBS's Frank Stanton told a Congressional committee in 1956 that "to curtail or destroy the networks' unique quality of instantaneous national interconnection would be a colossal backward step. It would make the United States much more like Europe than America. In fact, it would be a step in the direction of the Balkanization, the fragmentation, of the United States."[4]

If network leaders in the 1950s claimed that US national identity depended upon their unfettered market power, they also argued for their own legitimation via a quasi-electoral mechanism of viewer channel choice; as Stanton told the Congressional committee, "a network draws its validity in precisely the same fashion as an elected official of government -- from election by and of the people."[5] Thus the image of television as a quasi-statist oligopoly serving a domesticated and credulous audience was reinforced by network leaders defending their monopoly powers from the threats of regulation and competition.

In a similar manner, leaders of the two major networks defended their commercial practices before a series of congressional committees in the mid-1950s by associating their operations with ontological and aesthetic claims for the privileged status of live television, what CBS's Frank Stanton called "the very lifeblood and magic of television."[6] During the 1950s, the networks posited this strategic ontology of liveness against competition from potential pay-television services built upon the feature film libraries of the Hollywood studios. In CBS's Annual Report for 1955, Stanton argued that such networks would "highjack the American public into paying for the privilege of looking at its own television sets."[7] In a 1955 CBS pamphlet, Stanton described pay television as "a booby trap, a scheme to render the television owner blind, and then rent him a seeing eye dog at so much per mile -- to restore to him, only very partially, what he had previously enjoyed as a natural right."[8] CBS's mid-1950s evocation of pay television as a violation of both television's ontological destiny of liveness and of the "natural rights" of television viewers resonated with the pervasive rhetoric of anti-Americanism in the political discourse of the time and implicitly aligned advertising-supported television with the legitimating operations of the state. Television's association in both elite and public opinion with viewer credulity, liveness, consumer sovereignty, and national identity was sustained by industry leaders and critics alike over the three or four decades of network domination of the US television industry after WWII.

If many of the truisms about American commercial television can be traced back to the era of network ascendancy of the mid-1950s, such associations endured long after network power began to fade in the mid-1970s. The traditional opposition in reception sites between the domestic television receiver and the public cinema screen, with its persistent gender implications, has recently been challenged both by the growing popularity of domestic home-theatre installations and by the prospect of the electronic distribution and projection of feature films in public cinemas. While decried by some critics as the lamentable "domestication" of the theatrical film experience, the 1990s home-theatre boom has provided new masculinist pleasures of technological fetishism and feature-film collecting and connaiseurship and has arguably changed the modes of attention and sociality around which at least some television is consumed in the home. More significantly, prospective changes associated with digital delivery and recording media in the home promise to further de-stabilize traditional notions of the nature of television, its audience, and its links to national identity, as we shall see in the case of the PVR.

It is symptomatic of the current unsettled state of the United States television industry generally that the mid-1999 commercial launch of the seemingly-prosaic personal video recorder, a VCR-like appliance which records programs on a computer hard drive and downloads program schedules overnight via an internal modem, has already provoked apocalyptic warnings of the death of commercial television from some TV executives. While a number of major studios and television networks have responded to the personal video recorder by making direct investments in the two start-up manufacturers of the new devices, Replay Networks Inc. and TiVo Inc., other established media firms have threatened to sue the same manufacturers for copyright infringement. Four large media companies -- Walt Disney, CBS, the News Corporation, and Discovery Communications -- have, in fact, both made direct investments and threatened to sue the PVR manufacturers.[9]

One of the novel features of the PVR is its ability to record and replay material at the same time, allowing viewers to record an on-air program as they watch it, walk out of the room for an interval, and resume viewing the recording at the point at which they left, jumping past commercials on playback as desired. Replay's vice-president of marketing reported that tests of the device among consumers indicated that "after they've had the unit a while they stop watching live TV."[10] This new form of time-shifting is merely one sign of the ways in which digital technology, at least in the eyes of many current industry leaders and pundits, is eroding the experience of simultaneity and liveness that has been traditionally seen both as part of television's essential nature and central to its relation to the nation. MIT's Nicholas Negroponte predicted in 1995 that "digital life will include very little real-time broadcast....With the possible exception of sports and elections, technology suggests that TV and radio of the future will be delivered asynchronously."[11] In the same year, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates nostalgically described the communal aspects of the traditional live national television broadcast as instrument of national unity: "When we Americans share national experiences, it is usually because we're witnessing events all at the same time on television -- whether it is the Challenger blowing up after liftoff, the Super Bowl, an inauguration, coverage of the Gulf War, or the O. J. Simpson car chase. We are `together' at those moments." However, Gates argued, "it is human nature to find ways to create synchronous communications into asynchronous forms."[12] Notwithstanding such dubious appeals to human nature or technological will in forecasting the decline of the live nationwide broadcast, other observers have expressed skepticism about the significance of the entire project of television as agent of national identity, a central tenet of the network broadcasting era. As the New York Times briskly advised in a January 1999 editorial: "to the lament that we are losing a sense of national community as television grapples with its recombinant future, there is only one thing to say: Get a life."[13] Just as the three powerful networks had economic interests in proposing the nationwide live broadcast as television's unique aesthetic and nation-building mission in the 1950s, specific sectors of the media industry have their own commercial motives in announcing the end of simultaneity in the late 1990s.

If the prospect of digital delivery and storage of television programming has put into crisis the long-standing privileging of the live nationwide broadcast as guarantor of national cohesion, the digital personal video recorder has also re-ignited debates going back to the 1950s over advertising- versus subscription-supported television. The ease with which viewers might skip commercials recorded via the new device has led some industry observers to offer doomsday scenarios for commercial television, as declining advertising revenues force networks to bail out of bidding wars with pay television firms for the most desirable programming. One Young & Rubicam executive told the New York Times: "I think conventional television, while not quite dead, is going to do a slow death here," and the chairman of Viacom's MTV Networks told the paper: "I hate to think about Replay and TiVo. We kind of like the world the way it is now."[14] At the same time, the television networks in the 1990s seem uncertain about how to frame the perceived threat to commercially-supported television in the ideological terms of their 1950s opposition to pay-television proposals. For Garth Ancier, head of NBC Entertainment, the prospect of the migration of the most popular television programs from advertiser-supported to pay television brought about by the ad-busting personal video recorder "is either anti-American or totally American, depending on how you look at it."[15]

The prospect of large numbers of TV viewers using their PVRs to evade television commercials has also led to predictions that advertisers and broadcasters will respond by creating advertising formats impossible for viewers to escape, including intensive product placement within programs, on-screen banner advertisements, and program-length commercials.[16] A spokesperson for Replay Networks told journalists in August 1999: "We know there will be people who want to skip commercials. The goal for us is to find other ways for companies to deliver their messages."[17] Robert Tercek, senior vice president of digital media for the Columbia-TriStar Television Group at Sony Pictures, described the programming logic of Sony's partnership with WebTV and TiVo by invoking mail-order catalogs as program models: "There's no reason why TV programs in this new media have to be 30 minutes or an hour long. In fact, there are a lot of reasons why you want to make them shorter. It costs you a lot to keep an audience there.... J. Crew could be a show -- it already is a show, look at the catalog. Or Abercrombie & Fitch. Catalogs already attempt to create a narrative drama to give their products more mystique."[18] Through such programming innovations, commercial broadcasters and advertisers might well adapt to even the most alarmist scenarios regarding the effects of the PVR upon television advertisers.

One feature of the personal video recorder of enormous appeal to networks and advertisers is its ability to continuously track users' viewing preferences, offering sponsors and broadcasters the long-sought ability to deliver tailored commercials to individually-targeted consumers. General Motors, for example, has partnered with TiVo to allow the replacement of a GM broadcast advertisement with another commercial previously downloaded on the household's PVR, one tailored to the consumer's specific viewing habits and demographic profile.[19] As one industry official told Electronic Engineering Times: "We are beginning to see some system operators setting aside a portion of the HDD [hard disk drive] real estate for revenue-producing applications." As the trade journal explained, this choice was made "rather than leaving the entire storage space under the consumer's control."[20] In the TiVo device, viewers are asked to make simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down' responses to programs titles on the weekly program guide; the device aggregates and uplinks these preferences for use by advertisers. Despite the rudimentary nature of such viewer data, Jim Barton, TiVo's chief technical officer, argued that "there's actually not that many different types of people... . They tend to (fall into) socioeconomic buckets."[21] Despite perceptions of current industry upheaval at the hands of new digital technologies, such characterizations of the television audience resonate with decades of postwar US marketing and mass communication research.

The opposing reception scenarios conjured up by the personal video recorder, technologically-empowered TV viewers rebelliously zapping commercials versus passive and unwitting consumers being sold to advertisers in ever more perfectly-commodified form, suggest the extent to which contemporary digital technologies can evoke wildly differing fantasies of domestic television viewing. In this regard, the personal video recorder represents a case study in the long-predicted merging of television set and computer monitor, a convergence which activates distinct connotations of media use. As John Markoff of the New York Times wrote of the PVR, "the idea is to permit people to use television the way Web surfers now use the Internet," including the construction of customized viewer `channels' of favorite programs.[22] Business Week saw in the launch of the two competing personal video recorders a "race to convert television from a one-way affair into an Internet-age interactive medium," and this persistent opposition between interactive Web user and passive TV viewer pervades discussions of digital television.[23]

In addition to its effects on television advertising, another source of industry interest in the PVR concerns its potential as an Internet access provider and tool for what Business Week called "couch commerce."[24] As one journalist explained: "If you like the shirt being worn by Bill Cosby on his sitcom,... all you'll have to do to purchase it is press a button on your remote and be linked to the site of a major retailer or manufacturer, which already have all your measurements and credit card information."[25] In August 1999, America Online (AOL), the largest Internet service provider in the US with 20 million subscribers, announced it had acquired a minority stake in TiVo; Bob Pittman, president of AOL, said at the time that "AOL has always focused on making the online experience a key part of our members' lives. As consumers want to extend that interactive experience to devices beyond the PC, we see TiVo as a great way to help us deliver our hallmark, ease-of-use and convenience, to the television."[26] At the same time, rivals to AOL see Internet-enabled PVR's as a way to challenge AOL's Internet-access dominance by expanding Internet provision beyond the computer desktop. Such a shift involves the speculative re-definition of the traditional television screen, its location, and the nature of social interaction around it. An executive at the AT&T-owned Excite@Home told the trade journal Telephony: "We expect that a high percentage of consumers will want both TV and PC Internet....The PC experience in the den is typically very task-oriented, whereas the television experience is more driven by convenience."[27] One industry official noted that the central question about the success of the PVR remained "how couch potatoes might respond to potentially interactive features."[28] As the New York Times put it: "some question whether ReplayTV and TiVo, in predicting revolution, are misreading how viewers watch television: as either passive lumps not sure what they want until they notice that it is on, or as reflexive hunters for new, unanticipated viewing alternatives."[29]

This already-familiar rhetoric of empowerment, freedom, and interactivity has marked much of the press coverage of the PVR, frequently explicitly contrasting the active, in-command viewer of new interactive TV with that fabled and disreputable figure of the previous era of network broadcasting, the barely-sentient, lump-like couch potato. However, at least some journalistic observers have expressed skepticism about the likelihood of the PVR overturning that long-established figuration of the television audience. The PVR, according to one journalist, "allows the couch potato to settle even deeper into the cushions," and an enthusiastic Newsweek PVR reviewer concluded that "you may never get up off that couch again."[30]

While it remains to be seen whether US consumers will demonstrate much of an appetite for the time-shifting and interactive capabilities of the personal video recorder, it is clear that digital delivery and storage systems have already shaken some of the long-standing conventional notions of television's purported essence, reception, and social function. Moreover, the current marketing battles over the definition of the television medium and audience have more than merely commercial consequences; such scenarios of media reception become powerful, if largely unexamined, tools with which the public and policy-makers alike make sense of a changing media environment. The real historical agency wielded by these representations suggests that media historians have much to learn from a consideration of such ephemeral and self-serving material.


[1]Frank Stanton, Talk to Sigma Delta Chi convention, Columbus OH, November 13, 1954, pp. 14-15. Collection of CBS Reference Library, New York. Emphasis in original. return

[2]U.S., Congress, House, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Network Broadcasting, House Report no. 1297, 85th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1958), p. 194. return

[3]U.S., Congress, Senate, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. The Network Monopoly, Report by Senator John W. Bricker (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1956), pp. 3, 5, 15. return

[4]Frank Stanton, "Statement of Frank Stanton, President, Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. before the Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, June 12, 1956," p. 6. Collection of CBS Reference Library, New York. Emphasis in original. return

[5]Ibid., p. 36. Emphasis in original. return

[6]Frank Stanton, Speech to Second General Conference of CBS Television Affiliates, Chicago, April 13, 1956, p. 10. Collection of CBS Reference Library, New York. return

[7]Frank Stanton, "Free vs. Pay-Television," pamphlet (New York: Columbia Broadcasting System, May 19, 1955), np. return

[8]Ibid. return

[9]Bill Carter, "Aiming a little persuasion at makers of TV recorders," New York Times, August 16, 1999, p. C5. The diverse corporate investors in Replay and TiVo also include Sony, Philips, DirecTV, America Online, and NBC; individual investors include Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft and America's third wealthiest individual), and Netscape founder Marc Andreesen. Emphasizing the ambiguous status of the new storage device within the television industry was Replay's September 1999 selection of Kim LeMasters, a former chief programmer for CBS, as the company's chairman and chief executive officer. See Bill Carter, "Replay Network to appoint Ex-CBS programmer as chief," New York Times, September 16, 1999, p. C8. return

[10]Replay executive Steve Shannon, quoted in "Here at last: A brainy VCR" Toronto Star, August 29, 1999, np. return

[11]Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 168-69. return

[12]Bill Gates, The Road Ahead (New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 66. Microsoft, through its WebTV subsidiary, is developing its own version of the personal video recorder. return

[13]"Whither television?," New York Times, January 4, 1999, p. A18. return

[14]Bill Carter, "Will this machine change television?," New York Times, July 5, 1999, p. C1. return

[15]Ibid. return

[16]"Taking the ads out of television," The Economist, May 8, 1999, np. return

[17]`"Networks buy into new personalized TV technology," Calgary Herald, August 19, 1999, p. F5. return

[18]Robin Berger, "The name of Tercek's game is interactive," Electronic Media, September 13, 1999, p. 22 return

[19]"Companies consider ways to target TV advertising," Marketing News, March 15, 1999, p. 11. return

[20]Junko Yoshida, "Digital VCRs packing HDDs seen as first front in war to establish non-PC home networks," Electronic Engineering Times, August 2, 1999, np. return

[21]Jon Healey, "New technology customizes television program selection to viewer's tastes," San Jose Mercury News, August 18, 1999, np. return

[22]John Markoff, "Two makers plan introductions of digital VCR" New York Times, March 29, 1999, p. C13. return

[23]Janet Rae-Dupree and Richard Siklos, "Here's the next `big thing," Business Week, August 9, 1999 p. 38. return

[24]Ibid. return

[25]"Here at last: A brainy VCR," np. return

[26]`TiVo and America Online announce alliance for AOL TV," Business Wire, August 17, 1999, np. return

[27]Kelly Carroll and Brian Quinton, "Gaining ground on a giant," Telephony, August 23, 1999, np. return

[28]Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend Inc., quoted in "Digital VCRs packing HDDs," np. return

[29]"Will this machine change television?," p. C1. return

[30]Ernest Holsendolph, "Play it again; or, maybe, for the first time," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, August 22, 1999, p. 1p; N'Gai Croal, "(Re)play that funky television show," Newsweek, May 3, 1999, p. 67. return