Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 



Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment. Avi understands TV, video, audio, computing, and wireless, how all these are coming together, and which technologies are likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life. In his weekly column, Avi answers your questions, does your product research, and provides free advice.

Column 7

DVR Marketing: What Went Wrong?

Question: What’s a PVR? If they’re so great, why doesn’t everyone have one?

AskAvi responds: (October, 2001)

A PVR – Personal Video Recorder (also called a DVR, or Digital Video Recorder) is a box with a hard drive in it that records and manipulates video. It’s like a VCR in the same way that a toaster oven is like a microwave oven. Sure, both can cook food, but microwaves have created a whole new categories of food and kitchenware – microwave popcorn, microwavable containers, etc.

What does it do? You need to connect a PVR to two sources:

  1. a phone line, so that it can download program guides (in the middle of the night)

  2. your antenna, cable or satellite dish

It then records while you watch, and gives you complete control of what you watch, and when you watch it.

Like a VCR, you can tape shows and watch them later. Unlike VCRs, you can search the program guide (an interactive TV guide) and point and click to record shows. By telling the unit to record your favorite shows – or anything with specific words in the title, specific actors, etc. – you get your own personal lineup of TV to watch. Jump right to the show you’re most interested in – there’s no video tape, so you can record dozens of shows and pick just the one you’re in the mood for. For example, record every show with “Star Trek” in the title, AND every show featuring Martha Stewart – including her appearance on Oprah, AND every episode of Friends. You don’t have to know what network Buffy the Vampire Slayer moved to, or even what day or time it's on – just tell the PVR to record “Buffy.” You’re covered.

But that’s just the power of the interactive program guide. There’s more. When you watch recorded programs, you can skip all the commercials – with a Replay, you can even press a “commercial skip” button and instantly jump ahead in 30 second increments. That’s not it, either. Remember, it’s always recording – even when you’re watching “live” TV. This means you can:

bulletPause live TV to answer the phone without missing anything in the program
bulletStart your Super Bowl party only after all your guests have arrived
bulletStart watching a program you’re recording a few minutes after it starts, and catch up to the live broadcast by skipping the commercials
bulletJump back seven seconds to hear what that actor just mumbled – or watch the shot again

The PVR is an amazing thing. Everyone who has even a passing interest in television should have one. So why don’t they? Well, according to latest sales numbers, PVRs are finally taking off. But it didn’t take off as quickly as some expected – in my experience, anyone who has one of these things is outrageously enthusiastic about it, and that has made the relatively slow adoption rate more frustrating.

The consumer electronics press has focused on poor marketing as the primary reason PVRs haven’t sold like crazy. Just look at what a PVR does for you! It’s incredible! Clearly, if people aren’t buying, they haven’t been convinced that it’s incredible. To an extent, I agree. Replay barely dented the public consciousness, and TiVo’s ads gained some traction, but were a bit hard to follow and mostly just plain weird. Contrast this with the way satellite TV has been marketed (particularly DirecTV’s current “Feel the Love” campaign), and PVRs fall short.

Avi’s Theory of Gizmo Saturation Point: consumers can only absorb one gizmo in a given category at a time.

But the real reason I think PVRs have been slow to take off is that they fell victim to Avi’s Theory of Gizmo Saturation Point. With the rapid changeover to digital everything, consumers have a lot of potential gizmos to buy – MP3 players, Palm Pilots, DVD players, HDTVs, digital cameras, Sony Playstations, and PVRs. Of all of these, only DVD players become a phenomenal success. While sales of DVD players have driven purchases of big screen TVs (to see the added detail), and, to a lesser extent, home theater packages (to hear the improved sound), they have also crowded out the PVR.

After all, if you haven’t lived with one, a PVR sounds like “just a nice enhancement for heavy VCR time shifters” – a small percentage of VCR owners. Far more people use their VCR to watch rented (or bought) videos – and these folks are going out and buying DVD players in droves.

A secondary reason for the slow adoption rate is the cost – these things are expensive, and TiVo just makes things worse by charging a monthly fee for the program guide on top of the initial investment in the hardware. The whole industry is getting smarter here – they’re embedding the cost of the device into other things – cable and satellite set top boxes, mostly.

The press blames poor marketing. I blame the DVD player and high cost, but JVC seems to think that the missing ingredient was a cheap built-in VCR. Why? Reviewers categorized the PVR as an enhancement, saying, “but it won’t replace your VCR.”* To get them to stop saying this – and provide a clear replacement/upgrade path for anyone who needs a new VCR, JVC is creating a PVR/VCR hybrid. Since this is solving a nonexistent problem, I predict that sales will be dismal. Anyone looking at a PVR already has a VCR, and will be loath to spend even more money to buy a PVR with VCR components they don’t need. They’ll also be afraid the unit will break more easily (it probably will). Could this be what the press means by poor marketing?

Considering a PVR? Click here for AskAvi's Column #6: Choosing a DVR


*It’s true, sort of. If you want to keep recordings around for a long time, the PVR’s hard drive is not the place – you’ll need to archive to video tape.

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© 2001, 2002 Avi Greengart