Shifting time

I’m a time-shifter from way back. A lot of you might already be as well, without even knowing what it is. The concept of time-shifting is not new but the rise of broadband and connected mobile devices has made it more ubiquitous and more powerful. Time-shifting is where you take media that would otherwise be consumed in one particular place or one particular time and use another tool to consume it in another place and time. It’s likely that most people were first exposed to time-shifting by the VCR. Households could route their antenna signal through their personal video recorder and, through the use of a timer or the red circular button, capture television feeds on to tape. It all seems very quaint now but it served its purpose very well. It was extremely useful to capture a show that you otherwise would not be able to watch or that you wanted to keep for posterity. As far as I could tell, it was pretty widely adopted by mainstream consumers. Your grandma probably knew how to tape shows.

When the VHS tape was superseded by DVD, DVD recorders existed but I would argue they did not gain as much traction as VCRs had. Most DVD players at the time were just that: built for playing, not recording. The types of components required to write to optical media were more expensive, as was the blank media. The real heir to the VCR throne was to come in the form of hard-drive based PVRs. With the ascendance of digital television, these ‘personal video recorders’ could capture broadcast feeds and store them onto a hard drive just like the ones in personal computers. It meant there was no media lying around the loungeroom, tidy lists of programs to pick from, decent amounts of storage capacity available and programs were captured in high quality and did not degrade over time. The pre-eminent brand in the PVR space was (TiVo)[]. Initially a US-based phenomenon, TiVo combined a PVR with accurate electronic program guides and integration with pay-TV. Instead of programming a time and channel to record a program, TiVo maintained updated lists of the programming on the television networks so you could simply have a one-button recording experience and have the device record entire seasons of shows regardless of when episodes aired. TiVo came to Australia in 2008, but most people Australians experienced a TiVo-like experience from the Foxtel iQ service, which launched in 2005. TiVo and iQ needed to have nicely maintained program schedules to ensure they were effective and were therefore more expensive than a normal PVR.

The next development in time-shifting was the rise of streaming video services. Without fast broadband internet connections, on-demand internet video was essentially impossible, but when these sorts of connections reached decent levels of penetration they became a viable means of quickly distributing content of reasonably quality and length. In Australia, the ABC’s (iView)[] service launched in 2008 and was eventually followed with similar services from (Seven)[] and (SBS)[]. Public broadcasters were the ones who were able to move into this area quicker and more decisively, which might seem counterintuitive in a world where the private sector is supposedly the one that drives innovation. The situation was different for the the private networks though, for two reasons. Firstly, the cost of setting up and paying for the bandwidth for these services is high and in the case of the the ABC and SBS this money could simply be provided through public funding. In addition, so much of the popular content from the private networks was in purchased from US networks. Obtaining the rights to streaming this content may have been difficult to negotiate or prohibitively expensive, particularly because they would struggle to monetise these viewers to the same extent that they could the with traditional TV business model, ads. With a few notable exceptions, such as the ABC licensing BBC content for iView and Apple getting agreements from Australian media companies for the iTunes Store, it seems like getting these agreements has been pretty tough. This lack of progress has merely served to drive people towards illegal downloading services, particularly in countries where the content takes weeks or months to make it to Australian screens, if it ever does.

TV programming is the material that people have most often time-shifted, but with the rise of mobile devices, many more forms of media can be viewed in ways that are more convenient to the consumer. I’m going to run through a few ways in which I use devices to time-shift and consume my favourite content when I’m out and about, for instance, when I’m on the train to work.

Podcasts have been around a while now, but they are probably the type of media I consume most in a given week and are extremely enjoyable, convenient and flexible. Podcasts are basically recorded audio or video programs distributed through the internet rather than through traditional broadcasting. In any given week, I listen to shows about sport, technology and politics and economics. There’s bound to be smart people doing podcasts about the topics you are interested in. Next time you can, do a few searches in iTunes and see what comes up. Many of your favourite traditional radio shows probably record their shows and put them up the next day for download in podcast format as well, which can be a good place to start.

Another thing that mobile devices have allowed us to do is time-shift our reading of web articles. By using services like Instapaper, Pocket, Readability or Apple’s own Reading List, you can save great articles you come across on the web but don’t have the opportunity to read now. Then on the train or on a lazy Sunday morning you can load your app of choice and read the articles that you have saved.

Being freed of the need to be sitting in front of a television or computer at a specific time to read or watch something is liberating. You can just go about your life and get to your stuff when you have the chance. It’s how most media consumption should be. Some things need to be experienced live, like sport or breaking news coverage, but a lot of the content you might otherwise sit in front of a TV for would be better consumed in a way that was more flexible in terms of time and space.

Entertainment industries have yet to fully deal with the impact that these time-shifting services have had and will continue to have on their businesses. Ads are worth less when people can easily skip them, and putting ads on top of shows sucks. If generating pageviews is how you generate revenue then services that strip away those ads without you having to go to the website will impact your bottom line. Progress with the big TV and movie studios outside the US has been slow. The fact is that new forms of media created in this mobile-dominated era will not face these sorts of restrictions. People will not accept things like apps and podcasts being kept behind glass. All the new media will be time-shiftable.

The last question we will have to ask is what kind of impact will it have on us, the viewers? Collective experiences are becoming fewer and fewer in our society. Whereas big ticket TV used to only be available to us all at the same time, nowadays people can watch at their convenience. Monday morning water-cooler discussions are not the same as they were in the era of blockbuster Sunday night TV. Sport and breaking news are the last things I can think of that depend on being live as a key element of their appeal. These are things we want to watch as they unfold, to experience the drama together, to know exactly what is happening as it is happening. We need to hang on to these things because these collective experiences and events are what bind societies and communities together.

Time-shifting is extraordinarily useful and empowering. Whether the studios and executives like it or not, it is the way of the future. Looking at ways to make your viewing, listening and reading habits more flexible can free up some of your useful time and make good use of some of your down time. All the new forms of media that arise in the future will almost certainly be able to be consumed in this way. It has already permanently changed our consumption patterns. In the end, though, we need to examine the benefits and limitations of this power in order to determine how it best serves our own lives and that of our society.