As far as watching TV goes, the experience provided by a traditional cable provider is shit. Slow hardware, clunky interfaces, unwanted bundled channels. Streaming services are slowly replacing all of this and thanks goodness for them. But there’s an aspect of the old way that I will sorely miss—the DVR and its magical commercial skipping powers.
The DVR has become a hallmark of modern cable service. Digital video recording lets you store any show you want and play it back like videotape. It’s incredible. Sure, in many ways, this device is a mess. It usually features a horrible UI, operates sluggishly, and fucks up recordings regularly.
Its one great utility is flying through ads. Anyone who’s ever owned a DVR knows the feeling of arriving at a commercial break during your favorite show, dreading the next 3 minutes of ads, then realizing, holy shit this is DVR’d! I can just skip this soul-sucking nonsense! It’s exhilarating, like you’re single handedly upending the entire corporation-sewn agenda of gluing your eyeballs to ads. The experience isn’t perfect. It’s got the analog sluggishness of fast forwarding through videotape and the headache in trying to time your button-presses perfectly. But man, the payoff.
DVRs have been around long enough for the experience to seem utterly mundane. But with the growing trend of streaming as a replacement for DVR-equipped TVs, we may end up looking on the old way in a fond new light. As we jettison cable, we jettison the DVR, and with it, the ability to breeze past commercials as we see fit.
For the ad-averse, the baby years of streaming TV were great. Usually you only saw a single 30-second ad maybe two or three times in a half-hour show. It was fine. Better than the minutes of commercials we grew up with on TV. But before we knew it, we were being pummeled with three, four, five ads in a row, every ten minutes. GOD. And thanks to whomever thought it was a good idea to play the same irritating ad every over and over again throughout a single show. Now it’s like, ugh streaming!
These are ads that are impossible to skip. A streamed show, and the ads that come with it, is controlled by the underlying software. This software dictates what you see. It loads commercials and bluntly disables any kind of user control during them. I hope you like that new McDonald’s jingle, because you’re about to hear it a thousand fucking times.
Things are probably only going to get worse. Companies are still experimenting with advertising models that make streaming the payday it needs to be to keep them afloat. So far that’s meant simply more volume. Netflix users were aghast earlier this year at the news that the service is testing ads for their own shows. The horror!
In this paradigm, the DVR seems almost like an anachronism—a throwback to a time when people actually owned articles of media to be manipulated as they saw fit. The history of digital media consumption is largely a stamping out of this type of control. Movies and music are rarely stored locally, let alone owned. They exist in the cloud, and accessing them requires giving in to the demands of the service—namely, that you endure ads.
Despite the downsides, more television watchers, especially picky millennials, are choosing to select from a growing platter of streaming services in place of cable subscription. Who can blame them? Streaming is modern, easy, and offers choice in a way cable service can’t. It just makes sense.
Yet I happen to be a traditional cable subscriber. The reasons for stubbornly remaining so are minor but many, and they amount to an experience I still enjoy. It’s the freedom of channel surfing, the access to live events without having to worry about shoddy internet connections; but most of all it’s the DVR and commercial-free viewing that I cling to. It’s a fleeting but beautiful thing.
I’m sure ingenious tinkerers will devise software hacks to enable the bypassing of streaming ads. Some already exist on limited bases. There are also ways to “record” streaming content to store and watch as you please. But these methods will always be too technical or out of reach for most. The future is almost certainly composed of commercials that you simply must let play right on.
Maybe streaming options that feature no ads will proliferate in time. Rumors are circulating that Hulu is planning a price tier for that very purpose. That’d be cool. In the mean time, take stock of the small but significant power you still have by reaching for a button on a DVR remote and watching the obnoxious blare of commercials bypass your consciousness in a brief pixelated flurry.
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