In 2002 Michael Powell, then chairman of the FCC, received a digital video recorder for Christmas and fairly trembled with awe at its powers. "TiVo," said Powell, after using it for two weeks, "is God's machine."
This is an article from the March 21, 2011 issue
Its novelty has faded, but the DVR remains a miracle, allowing us to bend time, to freeze jump shots in midair, to summon weather—or at least The Weather Channel—at our whim. But as always when mortals dare to play God, that machine can be an angry, vengeful, Old Testament appliance. As the Chiffon margarine ads said in the 1970s, before we could kill such commercials with a Zeus-like zap, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."
No, it isn't. Ask anyone who tries to record an NCAA basketball tournament game this week and watch it later that day, as if it were live, without knowing the result. The universe conspires against us, which is why my father, who records college football games while attending four o'clock Mass on Saturday, answers the phone that evening with, "Don't say a word about the Notre Dame game!" ("O.K.," reply puzzled telemarketers.)
The problem has been around since the dawn of the VCR. It's old enough to have been a Seinfeld subplot, one in which Kramer burst into Jerry's at 1 a.m. to find him watching a baseball game on tape. "Boy," Kramer said, "the Mets blew it tonight, huh?" Avoiding the score is infinitely more difficult now, with e-mail, Twitter, text, tickers, Skype, smartphones, Facebook and fluid Gchat status messages—every one of them a Trojan horse entering our house with an army of spoilers.
Sleep is no respite. Nor is sealing oneself in a tube at 35,000 feet. Sleeping while flying is even a problem, thanks to garrulous pilots. A colleague DVRing a football game while he slept on a plane woke to cheering. When he asked a fellow passenger what the applause was for, he was told, "The Giants won."
Last week I spent a full day driving in New England—radio off, iPod on, mindfully oblivious to the outcome of the UConn-Pitt game in the Big East basketball tournament quarterfinals. When I stopped at a Gulf station on the Massachusetts Turnpike and began to fill up my car, something called GSTV—Gas Station Television—appeared on a monitor built into the pump and immediately showed Kemba Walker's game-winning shot for UConn. Like many a Walker defender, I'd been pump-faked.
West Coast fans have it worse. They're still at work, lashed to their phones and computers, when games tip off at 7:30 in the East. A Los Angeles--based public relations executive and Florida Gators fan recently sent a mass e-mail to plead for mercy: "Please do not send me any e-mails or text messages or leave me any voicemails about the outcome of any Gator game on the day in which it has been played," he wrote. "I'm begging. We must stamp out Ruining-Gator-Games in our lifetime. It's epidemic."
That's because recording television for later viewing is epidemic. For some prime-time shows, upwards of 30% of the audience watches after the program airs. American Idol—which spoils easily, like sports or lunch-meat—had 10.5 million additional viewers after its episodes' original airings last season.
What we need is an etiquette guide for the DVR—Robert's Rules of Order meets the video recorder, beginning with these basics:
1) Just as you never congratulate a woman on her pregnancy unless she first confirms that she's expecting, similarly, when contacting a friend, always tiptoe into conversation about any game played in the previous 24 hours unless he or she brings it up first.
2) Anyone recording a game has what lawyers call a "duty of care" to make that fact known when answering the phone. Ignoring calls is not enough. Some caller IDs now are displayed on the TV screen. Just seeing a friend's name—say, the buddy who taunts you whenever the Vikings lose—can be enough to ruin the day.
3) With certain games the recording party should have no expectation of blissful oblivion. When I saw a guy in a Bears sweatshirt at the YMCA during Chicago's playoff game against Seattle, I congratulated him on his team's commanding lead. His stricken look told me that he was DVRing it at home. Lesson: NFL playoff games, and other events in the national bloodstream, are essentially unrecordable without the benefit of a sensory-deprivation chamber.
In the end there's only so much you can do to shut out the world, especially that friend who knows you've recorded a game but who enjoys lording his knowledge over you. "I won't say a word," he'll promise. "Just be sure to watch the last 38 seconds. Amazing stuff." These people fancy themselves visitors from the future, traveling backward in their Hot Tub Time Machines with news of what's to come.
And so we play with God's machine at our peril. Recording shows for later viewing is what TV types call "time-shifting." It's a beguiling idea. But time-shifting, like shape-shifting, doesn't exist and never will. It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.
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