They will take my remote control away only when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.
This thought followed my first reading of a patent application for a new kind of television set and digital video recorder recently filed by a unit of Royal Philips Electronics at the US Patent and Trademark Office. The design appears to threaten the inalienable right to channel-surf during commercials or fast-forward through ads in programs you've taped.
A second, calmer reading of the patent application revealed that the proposed design would uphold the right to avoid commercials, but only for those who paid a fee. Those disinclined to pay would be prevented from changing channels during commercials. If the viewer tried to circumvent the system by recording the program and skipping the ads during playback, the new, improved recorder would detect when a commercial segment was being displayed and disable the fast-forward button for the duration.
As a business proposition, the concept appears dead on arrival: What consumer would voluntarily buy a television designed to charge fees for using it? When I spoke last week with Ruud Peters, the executive in charge of intellectual property at Philips, to learn how it would be pitched to consumers, he explained that the patent application had no connection to any Philips products in the pipeline. And, he explained, the notion of temporarily crippling the remote control to protect advertising is already out there and did not originate with his company.
But limiting remote controls is a possibility that could be realized in a new technical standard -- MHP, for multimedia home standard -- that the television industry is contemplating for the future. Neither broadcasters nor television manufacturers, whose joint cooperation would be necessary, have yet to adopt the standard. If the tele-vision industry embraced MHP, broadcasters could insert special signals to immobilize the remote control during commercials. If this came to pass, Peters said the Philips technology would "give consumers the freedom of choice" -- "freedom" defined as exercising the option to pay a fee in order to regain the use of the remote control.
Philips' pay-to-surf proposal may be the first of its kind, but we should expect to see other ideas that would not have appeared in days past, when advertising-based television thrived. Today, the digital video recorder is slowly, but surely, tunneling through the television industry's foundation. Ten million homes in the US had DVRs last year, according to Forrester Research; the number is expected to jump to 15 million this year, 30 million next year and 42 million in 2010. Scientific-Atlanta, which supplies set-top boxes to all the major cable companies, reports that fully half its boxes going out today are equipped with DVRs.
What this means for traditional advertising can be divined in data collected by TiVo, which has 4.4 million subscribers. Davina Kent, a TiVo vice president, said that when its customers watch recorded programs, they skip 70 percent of the commercials.
This has not escaped the notice of advertisers. Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester, predicted that "next year, you'll see signi-ficant decline in TV ad spending as a result of digital video recorders."
The television industry has not figured out how best to respond. Four years ago, Jamie Kellner, then head of the Turner Broadcasting System, remarked in an interview in CableWorld magazine that viewers who used DVRs to fast-forward past commercials were committing "theft," then a moment later described it as "stealing the programming." He did allow trips to the bathroom as a noncriminal exemption.