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American Idolatry

Last week I signed on for the Comcast triple play, which brought our triumvirate of phone-internet-TV under Comcast’s wing. It also simultaneously catapulted us back to the Land of DVRs (Digital Video Recorders), a place from which we had reluctantly decamped after our last TiVo box died months ago.

With DVRs, we’ve learned to start the recorder, then begin watching shows 10 or 15 minutes after they actually begin. The practice allows us to blissfully sail straight through commercials on a kind of joyride. Fast-forwarding makes me feel giddy and anarchic, like I am engaging in something revolutionary—albeit a lame sort of Digital Age revolution, its rebels armed with thumb-controlled remotes, asses planted firmly on the couch.

So last night the kids and I were parked for the season finale of “American Idol,” a program that we love to both deride and debate about… but never miss. For us, the ending of “Idol” is a bit like the first robin of spring, a signal that heralds: It’s May. Winter’s over. It’s time to get out.

Last night was the end of Season 7, a five-month journey begun during the short, cold days of January and ended with a two-hour showdown: David Cook vs. David Archuleta. Of course, joyriding as we were through the commercials, we cruised through the show in about an hour and 45 minutes.

Every time a clump of commercials loomed, we two-stepped around them like we were avoiding a nasty dog pile on the lawn, all the while congratulating ourselves for our brilliant move to return to DVR-ville. My teenager Evan commented, “Isn’t it great to not watch the crap parts of the show?”

Now, the way that the Comcast DVR records is to stop exactly at the top of the hour. And so, at the top of the hour, with a crucial few seconds to go before the climax, host Ryan Seacrest announced, his voice crackling with excitement, “…the American idol is…”

Then it ended. (And not just for us.) The DVR stopped playback and we were dumped into the show in progress. For a confusing few minutes (an eternity!), while the kids screeched protests and my brain tried to work out how to resume the show—can I replay to catch the unrecorded bit? How?—we were lost. Stunned. Stuck in Fox purgatory. We didn’t know which David had been anointed. It was a wholly unsatisfying climax after two hours of tease.

And so our DVR went from being lauded to loathed. The kids, each independently, hurled an insult or two at it. Caroline’s eyes, which had been screwed shut in anticipation of the winner’s being announced, now flew open in outrage and she erupted with a passionate, “I hate Comcast!”

Within minutes, of course, we pieced it together. We had missed the actual announcement, and the DVR had resumed “Idol” a minute or two after the winner was announced. Though all we saw was lots of cheering and hullabaloo and both Davids smiling-crying, we eventually deciphered that the David who was still standing front and center (Cook) was the winner, and the David being group-hugged by the other runners-up stage left (Archuleta) was not.

In truth, of course, it wasn’t Comcast’s fault: “Idol” ran long. I pointed this out to the kids, but I couldn’t help but empathize.

Isn’t this the role technology increasingly plays…? As much as it makes our lives easier, more effortless, efficient, or just plain nicer, technology also makes us dependent, and sometimes maddeningly needy. The price we pay is our inability or unwillingness to live without it. It’s the price we pay for an iPod that can house the entire Beatles catalog, Maps 2.0 traffic navigation , HDTV, GPS, smart phones, iPhones, and the Finding Nemo playing in a minivan backseat DVD player.

As Robert Roy Britt writes, when technologies like computers get “more powerful and complex and useful and finally vital, they gradually began to rule us rather than the other way around.”

And then there’s the issue of when it fails us.

As my father used to say of his Maguire relatives, “The Irish are tall, except when they’re not.” So, too, is technology wonderful, except when it’s not.

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45 Responses to American Idolatry

  1. C.C. Chapman says:

    One trick I’ve learned is that you CAN set the recording to run long if you do a series recordings it is one of the extended options.

    I learned this after several episodes of Lost ran long and I missed the cliff hangers. I now program it to take for an extra 5 minutes per episode. Most times it is extra nothing, but every so often it is critical.

  2. Deb Dib says:

    Did EXACTLY the same thing — thought we were SO smart missing all the commercials and some of the lame acts. Thought we were smart until the DVR stopped recording and shut down the TV at EXACTLY the wrong time. Next year I set it manually to run to ten minutes after the hour!

  3. C.C. Chapman says:

    One trick I’ve learned is that you CAN set the recording to run long if you do a series recordings it is one of the extended options.

    I learned this after several episodes of Lost ran long and I missed the cliff hangers. I now program it to take for an extra 5 minutes per episode. Most times it is extra nothing, but every so often it is critical.

  4. Deb Dib says:

    Did EXACTLY the same thing — thought we were SO smart missing all the commercials and some of the lame acts. Thought we were smart until the DVR stopped recording and shut down the TV at EXACTLY the wrong time. Next year I set it manually to run to ten minutes after the hour!

  5. Alan Wolk says:

    Ha! My wife and I were out last night and came home thinking we’d watch the crucial last 10 minutes.

    FIOS actually recorded the announcement of the winner… and then cut out about 30 seconds later. (Good thing there’s YouTube!)

    The trick is to remember to tell the device to add 5 minutes onto the end of the show. Which is unfortunately one of those programming tricks only the engineer who designed it is actually capable of doing!

    (Funny that we both did posts on AI tonight- completely different tacks, but same umbrella.)

  6. Alan Wolk says:

    Ha! My wife and I were out last night and came home thinking we’d watch the crucial last 10 minutes.

    FIOS actually recorded the announcement of the winner… and then cut out about 30 seconds later. (Good thing there’s YouTube!)

    The trick is to remember to tell the device to add 5 minutes onto the end of the show. Which is unfortunately one of those programming tricks only the engineer who designed it is actually capable of doing!

    (Funny that we both did posts on AI tonight- completely different tacks, but same umbrella.)

  7. Sorry about missing the end of Idol. The run-long trick is a good hack, but the real problem is that the networks (who are well aware of how long it is) don’t want to play nice with the DVR companies, because, well, they seem them as a mortal enemy.

    Which brings me to a different point: It’s interesting that you, as someone well entrenched in the marketing/advertising world, laud the DVR for its ability to skip the ads — the thing that pays for the shows you enjoy. Out of curiosity, (and I ask with an earnest respect,) how do you reconcile that?

    Jared

  8. Sorry about missing the end of Idol. The run-long trick is a good hack, but the real problem is that the networks (who are well aware of how long it is) don’t want to play nice with the DVR companies, because, well, they seem them as a mortal enemy.

    Which brings me to a different point: It’s interesting that you, as someone well entrenched in the marketing/advertising world, laud the DVR for its ability to skip the ads — the thing that pays for the shows you enjoy. Out of curiosity, (and I ask with an earnest respect,) how do you reconcile that?

    Jared

  9. How technology can trap us into its ways and intricacies.

    Since this is a case where the tech disappoints (I would assume inherent to all DVRs, no matter the brand), the best thing a company can do is create a best practices / tips infosheet. This can come with the unit (or bundled package), or be part of a mailing (best not bundled with the Bill though, as it likely won’t get read).

    Although I don’t have DVR, I will try and remember that 5sec trick :)

  10. How technology can trap us into its ways and intricacies.

    Since this is a case where the tech disappoints (I would assume inherent to all DVRs, no matter the brand), the best thing a company can do is create a best practices / tips infosheet. This can come with the unit (or bundled package), or be part of a mailing (best not bundled with the Bill though, as it likely won’t get read).

    Although I don’t have DVR, I will try and remember that 5sec trick :)

  11. Gavin Heaton says:

    Take a step back from the technology … look. It is the content. It sucks us in … the human drama — triumphs and tragedy. Embarrassment lives cheek by jowl with euphoria.

    Tech failures remind us what is important. That sense of belonging and connection.

  12. Gavin Heaton says:

    Take a step back from the technology … look. It is the content. It sucks us in … the human drama — triumphs and tragedy. Embarrassment lives cheek by jowl with euphoria.

    Tech failures remind us what is important. That sense of belonging and connection.

  13. Our Direct TV DVR caught the announcement of David Cook and then cut off before we get to hear him sing. So, my last impression of him is him singing with those totally current chart toppers ZZTOP (AI producers – is ZZ Top relevant? Reeeeeeally?)

    Are the content providers like Fox trying to do this intentionally to discourage time shifting on “water cooler” shows like the AI or are they completely incapable of running a live broadcast? Maybe they could have cut also super relevant modern superstars Donna Summer or Bryan Adams 1 minute short and tried to end on time.

  14. Our Direct TV DVR caught the announcement of David Cook and then cut off before we get to hear him sing. So, my last impression of him is him singing with those totally current chart toppers ZZTOP (AI producers – is ZZ Top relevant? Reeeeeeally?)

    Are the content providers like Fox trying to do this intentionally to discourage time shifting on “water cooler” shows like the AI or are they completely incapable of running a live broadcast? Maybe they could have cut also super relevant modern superstars Donna Summer or Bryan Adams 1 minute short and tried to end on time.

  15. Jay says:

    As I tweeted, in fan circles for AI (like the Usemet newsgroup) some advance warning floated around that the show was expected to go long. It’s become almost the norm anyway, between shows that are live and shows trying to muck with next hour competition on other networks.

  16. Jay says:

    Er, that’s Usenet. I figured Firefox underlined it red just because it didn’t recognize the term, not noticing the m.

  17. Jay says:

    As I tweeted, in fan circles for AI (like the Usemet newsgroup) some advance warning floated around that the show was expected to go long. It’s become almost the norm anyway, between shows that are live and shows trying to muck with next hour competition on other networks.

  18. Jay says:

    Er, that’s Usenet. I figured Firefox underlined it red just because it didn’t recognize the term, not noticing the m.

  19. Ann Handley says:

    Well, now we are all the wiser…. Good to know I wasn’t the only one completely flummoxed!

    @Jared: Yeah, I realize the irony of me saying as much… but so many TV ads are just plain excruciating. There were a few ads we actually stopped the DVR to watch, however: including the Coldplay/iTunes (Viva La Vida) spot. Is the onus on me to watch bad ads? Or on brands… to produce compelling ones?

  20. Ann Handley says:

    Well, now we are all the wiser…. Good to know I wasn’t the only one completely flummoxed!

    @Jared: Yeah, I realize the irony of me saying as much… but so many TV ads are just plain excruciating. There were a few ads we actually stopped the DVR to watch, however: including the Coldplay/iTunes (Viva La Vida) spot. Is the onus on me to watch bad ads? Or on brands… to produce compelling ones?

  21. Pingback: Hespos.com » Blog Archive » Quit it with the Anti-DVR Stunts

  22. Cam Beck says:

    Normally I would forbear plugging a client in the comments of a friend’s blog, but in this case it is actually relevant.

    While doing research on Tivo after we got the account, I found out that their technology allows you to set your record time to a few minutes before and a few minutes after its designated timeslot – just in case it goes over. That’s a big boon to those who like to watch competitions (sports or otherwise).

    That said, I feel your pain. What we have never seems to be quite enough. :)

  23. Cam Beck says:

    Normally I would forbear plugging a client in the comments of a friend’s blog, but in this case it is actually relevant.

    While doing research on Tivo after we got the account, I found out that their technology allows you to set your record time to a few minutes before and a few minutes after its designated timeslot – just in case it goes over. That’s a big boon to those who like to watch competitions (sports or otherwise).

    That said, I feel your pain. What we have never seems to be quite enough. :)

  24. Ann wrote:

    Is the onus on me to watch bad ads? Or on brands… to produce compelling ones?

    I’m going to guess that nobody in the advertising world says, “Hey, this client really wants one bad ad. Let’s give it to them. Go for it!”

    So, the real question isn’t about the onus to produce compelling ads, but an understanding of what that really means. Add to that (a) we can’t really tell, out of the gate, which ads are compelling or not (because if we could, we’d never make the non-compelling ones, right?) and (b) as far as I can tell, we get the same response from the bad ones as from the compelling ones, so there’s no reward system for the compelling ones.

    The advertising world is going to be challenged more and more as technology gives individuals a way to opt out.

  25. Ann wrote:

    Is the onus on me to watch bad ads? Or on brands… to produce compelling ones?

    I’m going to guess that nobody in the advertising world says, “Hey, this client really wants one bad ad. Let’s give it to them. Go for it!”

    So, the real question isn’t about the onus to produce compelling ads, but an understanding of what that really means. Add to that (a) we can’t really tell, out of the gate, which ads are compelling or not (because if we could, we’d never make the non-compelling ones, right?) and (b) as far as I can tell, we get the same response from the bad ones as from the compelling ones, so there’s no reward system for the compelling ones.

    The advertising world is going to be challenged more and more as technology gives individuals a way to opt out.

  26. Dan Schawbel says:

    This post makes me feel really bad for the social network called Bebo (Comcast acquired them).

  27. Dan Schawbel says:

    This post makes me feel really bad for the social network called Bebo (Comcast acquired them).

  28. Ann Handley says:

    Jared: Well, I don’t think folks in advertising are going out of their way to make a non-compelling ad, but as you say, technology is changing the way individuals are reacting to advertising, both bad or good. And that means that, increasingly, advertisers HAVE to be in tune on a whole nuther level. The good stuff, we sit through. Evan (why does the guy always get the clicker?) actually *stopped* the Fast Forward to view the iTunes ad I mentioned earlier. The bad stuff… fuhgeddedabouit. So I think there’s an increasing pressure to create advertising that folks DON’T FF thru.. which I guess is basically what you said.

  29. Ann Handley says:

    Jared: Well, I don’t think folks in advertising are going out of their way to make a non-compelling ad, but as you say, technology is changing the way individuals are reacting to advertising, both bad or good. And that means that, increasingly, advertisers HAVE to be in tune on a whole nuther level. The good stuff, we sit through. Evan (why does the guy always get the clicker?) actually *stopped* the Fast Forward to view the iTunes ad I mentioned earlier. The bad stuff… fuhgeddedabouit. So I think there’s an increasing pressure to create advertising that folks DON’T FF thru.. which I guess is basically what you said.

  30. Jill says:

    Sure sounds like some sort of evil plot from Fox to get you to watch the commercials next time!

  31. Jill says:

    Sure sounds like some sort of evil plot from Fox to get you to watch the commercials next time!

  32. Dusan Vrban says:

    I’m using computer (with Media center) and extending every recording for at least 30 minutes before and after. There’s just sooooooo much disk space. :-)

    Yet I hate my mobile for it resets at worst possible times. When I just need to make that urgent call…

    Technology actually sucks, even tough I’m kinda techno-freak. I can remember when I was young. Our parents would meet with friends at least 3 times a week, having fun, picnic, parties. No social networking, no rush, no speed. Commercials? Cool, time to talk to each other, have a drink. See that new TV star presenting that new car. :-)

    Today we have tools to make us “efficient”. Yet they just make us dependent, as you have pointed out, Ann.

  33. Dusan Vrban says:

    I’m using computer (with Media center) and extending every recording for at least 30 minutes before and after. There’s just sooooooo much disk space. :-)

    Yet I hate my mobile for it resets at worst possible times. When I just need to make that urgent call…

    Technology actually sucks, even tough I’m kinda techno-freak. I can remember when I was young. Our parents would meet with friends at least 3 times a week, having fun, picnic, parties. No social networking, no rush, no speed. Commercials? Cool, time to talk to each other, have a drink. See that new TV star presenting that new car. :-)

    Today we have tools to make us “efficient”. Yet they just make us dependent, as you have pointed out, Ann.

  34. All these people are much smarter than me — I added Hell’s Kitchen (which follows AI) to my record list and always managed to catch the last bit of the show that way. The low-tech workaround. But you’re right — technology is cool, except when it isn’t.

    DVRs are great because I’m never home for the shows I want and I was always lousy with VCRs. I do skip past most commercials — but I’ll watch them once in a while when an ad looks interesting.

  35. All these people are much smarter than me — I added Hell’s Kitchen (which follows AI) to my record list and always managed to catch the last bit of the show that way. The low-tech workaround. But you’re right — technology is cool, except when it isn’t.

    DVRs are great because I’m never home for the shows I want and I was always lousy with VCRs. I do skip past most commercials — but I’ll watch them once in a while when an ad looks interesting.

  36. Karen Swim says:

    Ann, I can so relate! I l have TiVos now joined by and ATT DVR (dumped Comcast). We do become dependent on technology and rail against it when it fails us. I did learn the extended trick which must infuriate the networks who make their shows run long so we won’t change the channel. My ATT DVR tapes 3 shows at a time so once again I’ve beaten the networks. :-) Great post Ann!

  37. Karen Swim says:

    Ann, I can so relate! I l have TiVos now joined by and ATT DVR (dumped Comcast). We do become dependent on technology and rail against it when it fails us. I did learn the extended trick which must infuriate the networks who make their shows run long so we won’t change the channel. My ATT DVR tapes 3 shows at a time so once again I’ve beaten the networks. :-) Great post Ann!

  38. Ah, technology. DVRs are too precise, Twitter can’t handle its tweets, and Technorati hasn’t updated most blogs’ links in months (perhaps years).

    Yet we just keep comin’ back for more.

    Your post really got me thinking: I used to think we had a choice when it comes to technology, but I don’t think we do any more. We are so dependent, as you and many commenters state.

    This worries me: Those of us who work in tech a lot have to be wary of technology monopolies (like Technorati) because when it breaks, we have nothing else to fall back on, and we depend on it. In the tech marketplace, often the first and fastest get the largest market share, but what if, well, those companies are horrible and inefficient?

    Anyone out there starting a new Technorati? (Just wondering…..)

  39. Ah, technology. DVRs are too precise, Twitter can’t handle its tweets, and Technorati hasn’t updated most blogs’ links in months (perhaps years).

    Yet we just keep comin’ back for more.

    Your post really got me thinking: I used to think we had a choice when it comes to technology, but I don’t think we do any more. We are so dependent, as you and many commenters state.

    This worries me: Those of us who work in tech a lot have to be wary of technology monopolies (like Technorati) because when it breaks, we have nothing else to fall back on, and we depend on it. In the tech marketplace, often the first and fastest get the largest market share, but what if, well, those companies are horrible and inefficient?

    Anyone out there starting a new Technorati? (Just wondering…..)

  40. pete says:

    C.C. reminds me of something I used to do when setting the VCR timer. (yes, there was ad-skipping before the DVR.) But at my house we ran into the exact same issue, Ann. There must be a tech adoption cycle documented somewhere from the consumer perspective – don’t need it, I’ll try it, can’t live without it, doesnt do everything I want, ok I’ll deal with it. Or something like that.

  41. pete says:

    C.C. reminds me of something I used to do when setting the VCR timer. (yes, there was ad-skipping before the DVR.) But at my house we ran into the exact same issue, Ann. There must be a tech adoption cycle documented somewhere from the consumer perspective – don’t need it, I’ll try it, can’t live without it, doesnt do everything I want, ok I’ll deal with it. Or something like that.

  42. Liz says:

    Technology, can’t live with it, can’t live without it :-) :-(

  43. Liz says:

    Technology, can’t live with it, can’t live without it :-) :-(

  44. Kristi says:

    A general question – has our “quality time” as a culture slipped so much that sitting in front of the tv as a family counts as such?

    I grew up in the 70′s on a farm…with 2 tv stations. Other than my dad watching the news for weather reports, it was rarely on. We read a lot, worked outside together and talked to one another. I’m trying to do the same thing in my family now. We’ve banned the use of technology that makes tv “easier” from the house.

    Most of our friends think we’re crazy – and we’re in IT and marketing, so it looks even more so. I sometimes feel like we might be missing out, then we go for a walk together as a family after dinner, knowing American Idol is on, and I just couldn’t care less.

  45. Kristi says:

    A general question – has our “quality time” as a culture slipped so much that sitting in front of the tv as a family counts as such?

    I grew up in the 70′s on a farm…with 2 tv stations. Other than my dad watching the news for weather reports, it was rarely on. We read a lot, worked outside together and talked to one another. I’m trying to do the same thing in my family now. We’ve banned the use of technology that makes tv “easier” from the house.

    Most of our friends think we’re crazy – and we’re in IT and marketing, so it looks even more so. I sometimes feel like we might be missing out, then we go for a walk together as a family after dinner, knowing American Idol is on, and I just couldn’t care less.

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