It's no secret why DVR's are so popular. Commercials are now so prevalent that the average "hour-long" network television show isn't much longer than 40 minutes. That 20 minutes of ads doesn't come all at once, either. Commercial breaks are barely long enough for a bathroom trip or a quick journey to the kitchen for a snack and beverage.
DVR users, though, can consolidate that block of time. A show starts at 9 pm? DVR it, start watching at 9:20 pm, and, if timed correctly, the DVR will catch up to the live version right at the end of the last commercial break. That's an entire 20 minute block of life saved. And that's just if viewers want to watch an episode every week. Many now save large blocks of time to watch entire seasons of television all at once. Add up all of that time saved over the course of an average network TV show season, and that's around 8 hours - enough time to fit in another half-season.
Industry pros call DVR functions "trick modes," and, understandably, those functions aren't as popular with companies who pay for TV advertising. Who wants to pay for an ad that people will see for less than one second as they fast-forward past it? Time Warner admits as much in a patent application it was granted last month:
Currently, with DVR and NDVR products, users may be able to REW (rewind) or FFWD (fast forward) through assets. The ability to prevent trick mode functionality may be important for a number of reasons. Advertisers may not be willing to pay as much to place advertisements if they know that users may fast forward through the advertisement and thus not receive the desired sales message. Content providers may not be willing to grant rights in their content, or may want to charge more, if trick modes are permitted. Further, some portions of a program may contain legal notices, such as carriage agreements, copyright infringement or piracy warnings, and the like, which viewers should desirably give their full attention to.
To solve this dilemma, advertising could evolve and try new business models, but the television advertising industry is far too entrenched for such a major shift. Instead, the goal in the future will be to contain programming in some sort of digital rights management (DRM) that prevents the skipping of advertisements. Don't believe me? That patent Time Warner now has does exactly that. Here's the patent application abstract:
Trick modes are substantially prevented during DVR and NDVR content by obtaining an audiovisual asset that is digitally compressed in accordance with a compression technique employing at least a plurality of substantially complete frames and a plurality of substantially intermediate frames, substantially removing the plurality of substantially complete frames from a portion of the asset for which trick play is to be substantially prevented, and streaming the asset, with the plurality of substantially complete frames substantially removed from the portion thereof, to a user thereof.
That sentence is, "substantially," written in an obscure patent-lawyer dialect. What it means in English is that Time Warner now has a patent to prevent fast-forwarding of specific content in DVR'd television, even if it is already completely contained on the DVR. The company can now prevent its subscribers from skipping commercials, even on content they have recorded.
The only question remaining is whether Time Warner will actually implement such anti-features into their cable boxes. At a time when cable companies are already struggling to keep newer technology at bay, can cable really afford to take a major step into the past? After all, a DVR without ad-skipping is little better than a VCR. And even VCR's could fast-forward through commercials.