Depending on who’s talking, Dish Network’s controversial commercial-skipping video recorder is either the coolest home entertainment innovation since high-definition TV or a doomsday device that could ruin broadcasters.
Last May, satellite TV provider Dish Network introduced its Hopper set-top box, which features an automatic commercial skipping technology known as AutoHop. The nation’s major broadcasters sued, alleging the service violates licensing agreements and also threatens billions of dollars in advertising.
Since the days of “Ozzie and Harriett,” broadcasters have relied on advertising revenues to create new shows and remain on the air. Any device that allows the 14 million viewers of Dish Network to avoid watching commercials will be fought tooth and nail.
“This is an attack on our ecosystem,” NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Haubert told reporters in May.
But the battle over the Hopper isn’t exactly new. For years broadcasters have fought technologies that allow viewers to avoid TV advertisements.
Dish Network responded with its own lawsuit, arguing that the device is only a modest departure from DVRs that are already on the market.
Years ago, videocassette recorders enabled viewers to fast-forward through commercials when watching recorded programming. Many sports fans relished the ability to watch an entire football game in about an hour instead of three hours. Even the remote control, first introduced in 1956, is a fairly effective commercial skipper.
AutoHop is part of the Hopper’s “PrimeTime Anytime” service, which records four hours of TV each night from ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. When content is viewed later, the machine can be programmed to skip commercials.
Dish Network spokesman Bob Toevs from Englewood, Colo., said the technology works seamlessly. There’s only a slight delay when the machine skips past a commercial. Contrary to some media reports, advertisements aren’t deleted from the Hopper’s hard drive. The device simply skips over them, Toevs said.
Aside from the commercial-skipping controversy, Toevs described the “PrimeTime Anytime” feature as a great way for viewers to discover new programming.
For example, if a co-worker raves about the latest episode of “Modern Family,” a Hopper user can easily find the program and watch it at his convenience, with or without commercials, Toevs said.
The AutoHop feature doesn’t erase commercials, and the viewer has to respond to a prompt in order to enable the commercial-skipping technology, Toevs said.
Also, AutoHop can’t skip over commercials when you’re watching live television, Toevs said.
“We have merely automated something that a traditional DVR can do,” Toevs said. “Many providers have the capability to fast-forward 30 seconds ahead (the typical length of a TV commercial) so what people are doing is something that is already well-established behavior. We believe the consumer deserves the choice to control what they want to watch.”
In Billings, Dish Network has been sending salesmen door to door, hoping to cut into cable operator Optimum’s market share. The Hopper plays prominently in the sales pitch.
There are big stakes in the Hopper controversy. Obviously, if you’re a business owner who advertises on TV, you might be tempted to review how you allocate your advertising dollars. If you’re a viewer who absolutely hates TV commercials, including the endless attack ads that air during the political season, you may be tempted to sign up for the Hopper.
But if broadcasters’ fears come true and the Hopper significantly cuts into TV advertising revenues, programming budgets could suffer. That could translate into fewer sitcoms like “Modern Family” and more low-budget garbage like “Wipeout” and “Wife Swap.”
If that happens, we might all wish we were still living in the “Ozzie and Harriet” era. Come to think of it, those ads for Alka-Seltzer and Marlboro weren’t all that bad.