TiVoing Childhood

TiVo Set

TiVo Set

This winter, my family celebrated the fifth anniversary of two life-altering additions to our household – the birth of our first child and the purchase of TiVo. The celebration for my daughter turning five was certainly more notable than my casual reflection that we’d been a TiVo family for five years. But I often think about these two transformations as somehow linked, a simultaneous immersion into the chaos of parenthood tempered by the order of time-shifting.

Libraries have been filled on the life-changing impacts of having children, and the transformative potential of TiVo has occupied many column inches as well. But I haven’t read much on the connections between DVR technology and young children, a topic worth some consideration.1 So forgive me as I play into the stereotype of both parents and TiVo-owners – that we can’t talk about anything else! – and reflect on the significance of raising children in a time-shifted household.

For new parents, the power of TiVo is quite apparent. A baby’s schedule is far less regimented and predicable than the networks’, so most new parents are forced to sacrifice their dedication to their favorite shows for the immediate demands of a newborn. There is still plenty of time to watch television, as late-night nursing sessions and hours of baby-rocking welcome the company of a glowing screen, but being able to consistently choose these times becomes a rare luxury. So having a time-shifted menu of your favorite shows awaiting your attention is a parental pacifier.

When the baby grows into a little kid, TiVo’s advantages stretch across the family. We use the TiVo as a self-replenishing library of children’s programming, keeping a steady stream of new episodes of Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, and Higglytown Heroes on demand. So while it may be easier to force a pre-schooler to follow the whims of the television schedule than a newborn, it is still far from ideal. Television’s best uses, both as a child development tool and parenting aid, shine through when you can control both what they watch and when they watch it, not having to choose between a program or a schedule. Personally, my buzzwords for children watching television are “moderation” and “age-appropriate” – goals well-served by the control offered by a DVR. Add the ability to fast-forward through commercials, and it’s hard for me to imagine raising kids without a DVR (assuming you don’t fall prey to the “TV-Free” propaganda).

All of this might just be another in a long line of rhapsodizing paeans to TiVo from a proselytizing early adopter (of technology, not children). But I’ve recently noticed more significant and interesting impacts of TiVo on my children. All of my daughter’s experiences with television have been via a DVR, and thus her entire frame of reference on the medium is shaped by a technology that is still on the fringes of American media – DVRs are only in approximately 7% of television households.

When my daughter asks “what shows are on?”, she is not referring to the TV schedule – rather she means what’s on the TiVo’s menu. For her, the transmission of television via a simultaneous schedule is an entirely foreign concept, even though this has been one of the defining elements of television as a medium for decades. She understands that sometimes certain shows aren’t available, but it’s not tied to a concept of how these programs get transmitted and recorded onto the TiVo.

When faced with the “normal” way to watch TV, she expresses understandable confusion. If I want to watch a football or baseball game in conflict with the normal “time for shows!” in our house – between 5:00-6:00 pm, giving tired parents a chance to cook dinner and chat in relative peace – she doesn’t understand why the timeliness of the game grants it precedence over her menu of programs. For her, all television is part of an ever changing menu of programming to be accessed at our convenience, not a steady stream of broadcasting to be tapped into at someone else’s convenience. (Of course, she also thinks of television as something that grownups study, teach, and write books about, so she might not be representative of most children.)

She also has little concept of channels – if programming is part of a personal menu, what does it matter if it came from Nickelodeon or Disney? She does, however, care a great deal about episode titles, an aspect of programming I don’t think I encountered until well into my twenties – since TiVo offers a title and description of each show it records, she regularly previews what a show will be about before watching it, and judges whether it’s new or an old favorite. Or sometimes she’ll reflect on the vintage of the episode, whether it’s a Steve or Joe Blue’s Clues, a Dora the Explorer with or without Diego. Clearly this is a different mode of consumption then my memories of flipping on the TV to see what cartoons were on.

Recently we had a family meeting to discuss revamping TiVo’s Season Passes for their daily diet of TV. Media literacy proponents talk about making media consumption a conscious and active process–what could be more active than a 5 and 2-year-old discussing whether they’d rather be watching Bob the Builder or Between the Lions? (For the record, Bob won, much to Daddy’s Muppet-philic chagrin.) Even if they’re not the offspring of a media scholar, children in a TiVo household are encouraged to think about what they’re watching and make active choices about their televisual taste and experiences in a way previous generations did not.

Diddy says, \

Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

The absence of scheduling as a significant structuring element will leave some experiential gaps in my children’s televisual growth. As a kid, Saturday morning was an oasis of children-only pleasures, with wall-to-wall cartoons and sugared cereal ads that licensed laziness both for kids and their snoozing parents. Some networks have abandoned this strategy in recent years, but it’s hard to imagine children in a TiVo household embracing such a ritual when cartoons lose their scarcity and may be accessed on demand. Likewise, for me a snow day or being sick meant mornings lying on the couch watching a parade of game shows, since nothing else worth watching was on; if the TiVo is full of age-appropriate favorites, the game shows would quickly lose their appeal.

These gaps are clearly no great loss – I’d rather my kids watch things more appropriate to their ages and interests than just what happens to be on. But it’s easy when thinking about new technologies to focus on either their industrial impacts and strategies, or utopian potentials as part of a digitally converged future. These are certainly important, but we should also consider technology’s impact on the everyday lives of its users, and on the way technologies shape the way we think about those mundane, commonplace practices.

I teach my students that media technologies are shaped by the intersection of technological, institutional, and cultural forces, emerging with unpredictable uses and social impacts. It’s hard to imagine a better way of witnessing how new technologies are culturally consumed and shape our perception than watching a child learn how to use them. My oldest is just learning the ins and outs of the remote control – turning the set off and muting commercials while watching sports live – but it will be interesting to see how she takes control of the TiVo once she can fully operate the menu. I expect she will be navigating the technology quite differently than her parents, who clearly see it as an empowering interface to a more normal way of watching the flow of television. If DVRs become as ubiquitous as many believe they will, how will the TiVo generation view the media? If my household is any indication, television will be transformed, but not necessarily in predictable ways.

Both parenting and TiVo transform a household. Personally, we’ve found satisfaction in both, upgrading our family to three children. Our one TiVo remains an only child, occasionally begging for a sibling to allow it to grow, learn to talk to other devices, and walk about the house a bit. But for now, it awaits further discovery from a generation who will think it so odd that we ever needed to watch television according to someone else’s schedule and flow.

1 See this link for a TiVo user discussion on the topic, and here for a brief consideration from USA Today.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo Set

2. Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

Please feel free to comment below.


  • ahistorical technophilia?

    Much can be said about the benefits of DVR and parenting — I think my own mother would have loved it and I find that my friends with kids are the first to champion it for allowing them to keep up with “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” (of all things). Moreover, it’s rendering of the notion of “television schedule” is interesting, I guess, for rhetorical purposes……

All of that said — the bevy of scholarship on TiVos and DVRs feels so ahistorical. As a kid who grew up only knowing (and loving) the VCR, DVR technology isn’t really so groundbreaking. And while we’re at it, it doesn’t feel as if life and television are forever changing…. Yes, it’s easier now, yes it’ll tape things I don’t ask it to. But that is ONLY if I pay for TiVo, a steep cost when DVR through my cable company is so much cheaper…. And let’s not forget that those VHS tapes still work too and are basically the same thing…. 

DVR technology is still used by a tiny minority of the television audience. That this particular digital divide is so frequently overlooked feels icky, particularly in a field which has such a debt to politically-oriented criticism (a la cultural studies, feminist criticism, etc.). So before we clamor to posit how DVR technology will change us, television, the world, it might help if we recognize that it’s really the domain of a select few — and that even then, it just made programming the VCR easier…

  • HG’s comments about the “digital divide” are important to consider here, especially with such a small percentage of the population owning DVRs (a point that Jason acknowledges). Framing DVR use in terms of these class distinctions can be valuable, and it would be intersting to see (or think about) how the DVR “functions” in other families and to what extent it might be caught up in the ahistoricism described by HG.

    I do think that DVRs represent specific material change unlike the VCRs. Besides the already mentioned “convenience” issues (and Tivo automatically recording shows whether you want them or not), videotape produces a slightly different relationship to televisual flow in that it pulls something out of the broadcast stream whereas DVRs don’t require a notion of flow in the same way, with shows being potentially available at any moment.


  • Certainly, the premise behind the DVR is far from groundbreaking. I think Jason’s column did, however, gesture towards one way in which TiVo stands apart from the VCR – and from the generic DVR, too, for that matter. This has to do with the culture of use that has emerged around TiVo. Undoubtedly, many of us have encountered TiVo subscribers who describe their experiences with TiVo using what can only be described as evangelical rhetoric. The neoreligious discourses that circulate through the TiVo user community are, I believe, paradigmatic of new kinds of consumer affiliations, and new ways of consuming media, that are having real repercussions for the way tv is programed and funded.

    Many TiVo subscribers profess to have exchanged traditional forms of program, channel, or genre loyalty for loyalty to their TiVos. I can’t recall ever reading or hearing someone proclaim that “My VHS changed my life!” or “My Scientific Atlanta DVR from Comcast changed my life!” But do a Google search for “TiVo changed my life” and you’ll get four million plus hits. Of course, the ubiquity of these narratives shouldn’t be mistaken for their verity or validity. Certainly, however, these discourses warrant serious consideration from TV scholars who are more accustomed to examining viewers’ interactions with texts and messages than with consumers’ interactions with technologies of transmission or storage.

    While I agree that we are wise to contest the technophilic (and technological determinist) discourses of the “TiVo sublime,” I’m equally wary of the first respondent’s reduction of TiVo to a technology with familiar features and a low adoption rate. Instead of trying to “prove” the supremacy of either of these positions, perhaps its time TV studies turned its attention to the distinctive user community that’s formed around TiVo. By doing so, we stand to appreciate the consequences that this group’s *visibility* has for viewers on both sides of the digital divide. We need only look at the recent controversies over changes in Nielsen’s methodologies to appreciate that, while statistically marginal, the TiVo brand community has since 1999 become a force for change in the US television industry. Obviously, the main reason that broadcasters and sponsors are concerned with this “select few” is because TiVo subscribers have higher incomes, more years of schooling, and, most importantly, watch more television than the rest of the viewing population. That said, to write about these viewers need not entail abandoning any form of politically-oriented criticism. As the industry reorganizes itself in response to the actions of TiVo’s early adopters, it is likely that *all* of our experiences of TV will change. I, for one, can’t see how we would stand to gain from downplaying connections between these changes and the viewing practices described by Jason in this piece.

  • Control Issues

    It seems natural for parents to want as much control over what their children watch as possible, and clearly TiVo/VCRs/DVRs are ways of increasing control. I wonder if growing up in a TiVo household might make a child think of the television as an extension of their parents rather than a window into another world. The same might be said of filtered internet access. Many of us grew up in households where there were rules about which programs we watched, but like Mittell says, the timeliness of the medium resulted in us watching “inappropriate” shows (not necessarily damaging to us, but not directed at us, like soaps or game shows). For better or worse, I felt as though TV had a power and a voice all its own. I grew up thinking that while my parents (or, later in life, I) could choose what I watched, there was some resistant force that challenged our sensibilities. As a consequence, my conception of TV didn’t really change once I was old enough to pick my own programs. There was always something public about what was on TV, something shared. I doubt the transition will be as seemless for children of TiVo. To them, TV will be a manifestation of their parents’ will to guide their experience that may suddenly, upon adolesence, turn into a powerful tool for self-indugence.

    In general, there’s something unsettling to me about losing the sheer randomness that comes along with channel surfing. Now I realize that the “voice of pre-TiVo TV” was as much an Orwellian attempt to get us all thinking and buying alike as a reflection of public need or desire, so perhaps its nothing worth lamenting the loss of (if only in 7% of households). But I just feel incomplete and cut off from an imagined public when I am able to choose my media. Even with print: I love to choose what books I read, but every now and then, I want to be confronted in a newspaper (or an online journal) with something I never would’ve found on my own.

  • Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. A few things I want to add:

    I agree with HG that we need to be careful being too celebratory of what is still a marginal technology for an elite, but it is more than just a “better programmed VCR.” While VCRs allow for timeshifting, DVRs timeshift by default, not an option. A TiVoed TV is rarely watched live, and live viewing is generally saved for particular types of programming (sports, news, etc.). For a child, this default to a library model of programming is a huge shift, not just facilitating a better way to timeshift, and the conceptual shift among users is far more pronounced than the VCR adoption of the 1980s.

    Elliot points to a key debate among media scholars: does the “mass effect” of broadcasting build a shared culture and promote exposure to diverse messages, or is culture better served by fragmentation that allows for more choice & customization (and thus diversity)? Multi-channel programming uses narrowcasting to “break up America” (in Joseph Turow’s words) into market segments, and DVRs make temporal engagement even more personalized and segmented. I’m skeptical of claims of shared culture around mass entertainment, but certainly DVRs allow more choice & control, and thus less browsing outside of each of our comfort zones – if you always have Seinfeld & Simpsons reruns on tap, why search for new programs?

    Finally, an anecdote on the pervasiveness of TiVo as a verb: my wife was reading an article about nursing, and the author suggested that mothers should “TiVo a week’s supply of breastmilk in the freezer”! Clearly the brandname might be used as a substitute for any form of timeshifting and storage…

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