Swamping channel surfers

Last month, a newswire story crossed my desk which from a PR perspective was about as sharp as a bowling ball. Philips Electronics is patenting technology to prevent people from using their PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) to fast forward commercials. The move is akin to Exxon announcing a new technology which will reduce a car’s gas mileage by half.

Certainly, Philips chummed tech and entertainment columnists into a feeding frenzy over this one. Every Web-head with a blog is probably still drooling like a Saint Bernard at the possibilities for corporate bashing.

If the idea of someone blocking your ability to fast forward through commercials isn’t crazy enough, the technology from Philips could also prevent you from switching channels during a TV show — God help those who get trapped on CPAC watching question period.

The patent application acknowledges that the anti-channel surfing technology will not sit well with consumers (no kidding!) and notes subscribers could avoid the feature for a fee paid to their provider — TV’s first program protection racket.

Don’t think it’ll fly? Well, considering we did swallow the whole ATM “convenience” fee scheme, I think the jury is still out on this one.

Even technology which is obviously unpopular with the public can find its way into the market place if it puts more cash in network coffers. A decade or so ago, a company developed technology to speed up movies and shows in order to “better serve consumers” (sound of head banging on desk).

Of course, this had nothing to do with making TV a better place for viewers. It was all about squeezing more commercials in. And I admit I was very disappointed when the technology proved to be reasonably subtle and the sped up movies didn’t resemble a Benny Hill chase skit.

A day after making this announcement, Philips must have had second thoughts because their ensuing statement pointed out the technology can be used just as easily to block out commercials at the discretion of the viewer.

Congratulations Philips! You’ve invented pay TV all over again.

All jokes aside though, did anyone really believe broadcasters would allow you to watch a show without commercials? Sure, maybe they could charge you a fee for this privilege and yes, if it was packaged correctly, it could even be attractive to some people. Yet, I feel reasonably secure in the thought that most of us would consider this as alluring as do-it-yourself laser eye surgery.

The software runs on one type of “middleware” used to run interactive TV around the world.

Not all cable providers use the same platform, however, but I doubt that would slow them down for long in their rush to provide us with more “convenient” services (sound of head banging on desk).

In fairness to Philips, this may be exactly what they claim it is: a simple patent application for technology as part of broader development within the industry. Philips states that they have no intention of using this technology in any of their products.

But, if you think that there are no TV execs reaching for their phones to call Philips about it, then I have a house on a Louisiana flood plain you might want to buy.

Now, I have to admit, it will certainly be fun to see the first network or content provider to actually try to implement this. To get this one past consumers, you’d have to put more spin on the pitch than a Roger Clemens curve ball.

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— Ducharme is Editor of PCWorld.ca. Contact him at [email protected].

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