Jeff Gelles: Dish Network's AutoHop can skip over commercials, but not the dispute about it

Dish Network's Hopper can record lots of TV. Its new device, AutoHop, can skip over ads.
Dish Network's Hopper can record lots of TV. Its new device, AutoHop, can skip over ads.
Posted: February 04, 2013

The Hopper is either a multi-room DVR featuring a kangaroo mascot, partner units called "Joeys," and an innovative commercial-skipping function, or it's an existential threat to commercial broadcast television - the biggest since, well, the Betamax.

Either way, you might want to pause the TiVO for a moment and consider what's behind this battle, which has been playing out in the courts for much of the last year and more recently in the court of public opinion.

The Hopper was unveiled a year ago by Dish Network, the satellite service that's the nation's third-largest provider of multi-channel pay television.

At last January's Consumer Electronics Show, Dish CEO Joseph Clayton carried out a baby kangaroo, a joey, to tout the new "whole-home HD DVR" that would soon allow a subscriber to start a show in one room and hop to another to watch the rest.

With its "PrimeTime Anytime" feature, you could direct the Hopper to collect the last eight days' worth of all four major networks' prime-time shows, and record two other shows at the same time - in essence, saving up to six shows simultaneously on a three-tuner recorder. Dish said the Hopper's two-terabyte drive could record up to 2,000 hours of ordinary television or 500 hours of high-def TV.

Never mind why you'd actually want all that TV. Dish was clearly trying to hop ahead of DirecTV, which already offered its own whole-home digital video recorder. But in May, two months after the Hopper hit the market, Dish unveiled its one truly disruptive feature: "AutoHop," a function that makes it easy to skip past commercials while watching those prime-time shows, as long as you wait till the next afternoon to view them.

Dish didn't exactly downplay its announcement. It called AutoHop "the feature viewers have been waiting for since the beginning of television - the choice to automatically skip over commercials."

The networks were no less sweeping. Within days, an NBC executive called AutoHop "an attack on our ecosystem." Since May, all four networks have mounted various legal challenges to Dish's Hopper and AutoHop, largely centered on accusations that the device violates copyrights, and that Dish was violating its contracts with the networks allowing it to retransmit their shows.

One challenge, by Fox Broadcasting, has reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

As CBS put it in a recent filing, Dish's innovation "threatens to undermine the economic foundation on which free, over-the-air broadcast television has been built."

If that phrasing makes you laugh in an era when most of us pay a large monthly fee for TV service - most likely to a cable or satellite provider - welcome to the club. Although I can't dismiss the networks' chances in today's courts, the Supreme Court essentially upheld viewers' rights to skip past commercials nearly 30 years ago, when it upheld the right to "time-shift" by recording shows on Sony's then-revolutionary Betamax VCR.

The Betamax is a historical footnote today - a superior technology that lost out to VHS because of commercial missteps, and that was destined to be eclipsed by new technologies. Today, we can watch shows in a seemingly endless variety of formats - including on video-on-demand services, where fast-forwarding past commercials is increasingly likely to be disabled.

Personally, I much prefer watching shows I've recorded myself, so that I can speed past commercials if I want, or watching older shows commercial-free on DVDs or Netflix.

The Hopper made news again at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, when a CNET reporter resigned in protest after the tech website's parent company, CBS, blocked CNET from giving the latest hopper a best-in-show award.

Still, the tech world knows the value of disruption, even if old media behemoths are busy trying to stop it. One of the Hopper's best defenses came from Gary Shapiro, head of the show's sponsor, the Consumer Electronics Association. He defended Dish, an innovation itself, in an op-ed article.

"TV networks can no more force you to watch TV commercials than a newspaper can force you to examine every ad on your way to the sports page," he said.

It's a basic market freedom: getting to read or watch what you want. That's something a successful business should never forget.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

 

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