High court says, skip those commercials!

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Many of us -- this blogger included -- like the idea of whizzing past commercials to get back to our favorite programs sooner, but put up with having our viewing interrupted by Madison Avenue because we're resistant to the idea of shelling out a couple hundred bucks for a digital video recorder.

Soon, though, those days of being forced to sit through talking animals and how-did-that-get-stuck-in-my-head jingles might be over, thanks to the Supreme Court. Yes, that Supreme Court.

While the nation's highest justices don't normally insert themselves into our TV habits (thankfully -- I'd hate to be judged for my addictions to Hell's Kitchen or Law & Order: SVU), in this case, it's a welcome involvement.

Let's cue up a Fred Savage-era voiceover and go back to when this all began. In 2006, New York cable operator Cablevision developed what it called "network" DVR. This would let viewers store programs for later viewing on the cable company's servers rather than in a DVR box on their set top. Think of it as the equivalent of using a Web-based e-mail program; all of your information is housed in some distant server, not in your computer itself.

The implications are obvious: With this technology, any TV could record and play back shows, provided you were paying Cablevision for digital cable service. No pricey box, no installation fees or headaches. Now, take one guess who was not a fan of this new development. That's right: the people who currently make money forcing you to watch those commercials.A consortium of TV programmers representing a handful of networks sued, claiming Cablevision's new technology amounted to illegal copying of copyrighted material. They claimed that shows stored in an individual's DVR were in some significant way different from those same shows if they were stored on Cablevision's servers.

Of course, the networks also had a strong incentive to keep more Americans from having access to DVR technology. The prospect of widespread DVR usage spells trouble for networks, since -- no big surprise here -- when given the option, we tend to skip over commercials.

With TV networks already fighting to combat viewer defections to the Web and DVD services like Netflix, any large-scale defection could put a serious dent in the amount they can charge advertisers.

A federal court initially sided with the networks, but Cablevision won out in an appeal. The networks took the case to the Supreme Court, which announced yesterday it was refusing to review the networks' appeal, granting Cablevision a legal victory. The cable operator said it would start rolling out some features of the new technology to customers this summer.

No doubt, the networks will wring their hands and try to invent even more crafty ways to get ads in front of our eyeballs, but this is still a victory for viewers. Just think; by this time next year, the "Five-Dollar Footlong" song or the Cockney-accented gecko could be little more than distant memories.
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