Part of hip-hop lore is the story of a 15-year-old named Theodore, a Bronx kid with a thing for loud music. Blasting tunes from his bedroom stereo on a summer afternoon in 1975, the teen was startled by his mother’s appearance at the door. He bumped the turntable, the stylus skittered across the vinyl, and somewhere within the abrasive sound of the needle’s scrape young Theodore (later known as Grand Wizzard Theodore) detected the makings of a revolution. Born that August afternoon was the turntable “scratch” that is to hip-hop music what a moistened reed was to Benny Goodman.
Twenty-five years later, people still enjoy messing with their content. In April, Warner Music Group tried to turn the tables on Internet music pirates by planting dummy versions of a Madonna song from the new “American Life” album onto web file-sharing networks. A few seconds into the song the pop diva can be heard berating would-be thieves with the question: “What the **** do you think you’re doing?”
Within days, renegades had taken Madonna’s exhortation and twisted it into digital re-mixes that hurled the singer’s words right back across the digital network transom, often with hilarious results. The web site dmusic.com staged a contest that invited people to perform their own inventive surgery on the track. Dozens of remixes were submitted within a week. Few were flattering to the artist.
Madonna’s brush-up against the creative will of the populace lets us relearn an old lesson from the media history books. If people have access to machines that allow them to dink with supplied content, then dink they will. Record albums, remember, were neatly packaged compendia of carefully arranged song sequences until the 1970s, when teenagers got their hands on cassette recorders and blank tapes and began to experiment with their own homebrew pairings of Black Sabbath-meets-Ted Nugent as the opening entries on a Maxell UD-90. In 1978, the music industry reacted with its now-customary alarm. British record labels began plastering a skull-and-crossbones image atop albums, bearing the slogan: “Home taping is killing the music industry.” (To their credit, British punk bands responded in kind with a mocking retort: “Home taping is killing the music industry. And it’s about time.”)
The phenomenon of ‘70s-era music fans concocting their own party tapes was merely a bubbling to the surface of an ages-old tendency. Humans have always wanted to put their own imprint on content brought to them by the elite. Even Shakespearean theater was a loud and messy affair, with audiences apt to shout, hiss, comment and generally intrude recklessly upon the author’s work.
Today, digital contraptions make it easier than ever to twiddle with the content that spills into living rooms. But these machines don’t provoke any new behavior. They just make old desires easier to satisfy.
The digital video recorder is today’s extreme example. Those who own them tend to grind and mold the great multichannel maw of television into something that looks and feels very different than the tidy, linear package that was delivered to the f-connector. The DVR in your neighbor’s home spits out all gardening shows, all the time, while four doors down it allows a rotisserie baseball geek to replay that rare Placido Polanco home run thrice before bedtime. According to one survey, a quarter of DVR owners have so bonded to the thing that they don’t even watch live TV at all anymore.
This is evidence worth considering given the sucker bet currently being offered up by the satellite TV industry. DBS providers would like to draw the enemy into a my-technology-is-better-than-your-technology grudge match over on-demand television. The public posturing from the satellite side aims to pit the satellite solution (lots of channels plus an integrated DVR set-top) against cable’s centralized VOD-from-a-server approach.
VOD’s terrific, but history tells us the right approach for cable would be to avoid letting satellite operators draw up the battle based on neat technology lines. Actually, cable ought not to allow satellite providers to co-opt the DVR category at all. Instead, it’s wise to recognize the DVR for what it is: today’s version of the blank audio cassette that invited a high-school kid with a minimum-wage job to play album producer. It’s a machine that lets people take the television that comes into their home and turn it into something of their own making.
VOD might turn out to be just what cable thinks it will be: a fabulous, defining technology. Even so, cable operators should not be hesitant to embrace their inner DVR, if for no other reason than to dance in step with history’s rhythms. Customers will flock to DVRs not because they provide a poor man’s version of VOD, but because they confer control. They let us take a television program and mess with the darn thing. Like Grand Wizzard Theodore’s spinning turntable circa 1975, they let us play it our way.
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