BY STACI D. KRAMER When Jamie Kellner discussed his concerns over personal video recorders during a lengthy interview with me last April, no one could have imagined that the ensuing furor over his remarks would go right on reverberating almost a year later. After all, who would guess that a story in Cable World would cause a 1,000-message pileup at Web community Slashdot, make newspaper columns around the world and be the focus of a letter-writing campaign by the Electronic Freedom Foundation? Or that Kellner’s wake-up call to the industry could well be among the real legacies of his time as chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting. While others dismiss the issue with talk of more outhouses than TiVos, Kellner sees the not-too-distant future of critical mass as cable and DBS operators include PVR capabilities in set-tops. And while some focus on the Super Bowl roster of national advertisers, Kellner frets over the PVR’s potential harm to local ad sales. Initial reaction to Kellner’s comments was both to what he said — that PVR technology puts the ad-supported model at risk — and the way he said it — that skipping ads equaled theft. Then there was the wry response when, trying to gauge his parameters when it came to ad-skipping, I asked: “What if you have to go to the bathroom or get up to get a Coke?” “I guess,” Kellner replied, “there’s a certain amount of tolerance for going to the bathroom.” (Type “Kellner” and “bathroom” into Google and some 2,100 mentions pop up.) Fast-forward ten months and Kellner has changed his approach. A bit. “We don’t make jokes about this anymore,” he says. But if anything, the PVR debate is even more intense. Kellner is just as vocal on the issue, though he will soon lose the clout that comes from running multiple networks. On a panel at the NBA Technology Summit during the All-Star weekend in Atlanta — off the record unless panelists choose to talk to reporters — sparks flew as Kellner tried to get the same message across to the more laissez-faire HDNet founder Mark Cuban. As Kellner put it later, when people question his views on this subject “I look at them like they’re crazy. Either they don’t get what’s going to happen or they don’t care.” Despite all the discussion since that first interview — his appearances at the Association of National Advertisers, the Television Critics Association tour, a recent Ad Age panel — Kellner insists that “people are blind to the fact that there should be a debate about this, that this is an enormously important issue.” But, he stresses, “I am not against PVRs. I think it’s an interesting technology. The only problem that I have is that the industry cannot continue to produce programs as it currently does unless it is either paid for viewing the programming, some kind of subscription model possibly, or people don’t skip the commercials.” Product placement is only a panacea. “When you have roughly $45 billion in 30-second units, you will not make up that with product placement. You’ll make up 5% of that with product placements if you’re lucky, in my opinion.” What next? Kellner would like to see a grassroots effort. “I think you have to get a lot of people focused on it. I think every advertiser in the country should look at it and think through whether they think it’s good or bad for their business, and they should begin to lobby. “What we have right now with PVRs is sort of like a movie theater where they forgot to put the usher at the front door to take the tickets. Everybody just kind of walks in and out and watches anything they want without paying for it. What we’ve got to do is get the person in front of the theater again or we’ll have to close the theater some day.” But it has to be done with the consumer in mind. PVR users may be few in number now, but they (OK, we — I have two) tend to be fervent once converted. Try taking away any of the abilities that already exist and the backlash could be vicious. Education has to be a part of any effort. Some of the most vehement reactions to Kellner’s initial comments came from cable subscribers unaware that their increasing monthly payments don’t cover the costs of programming. No matter how hyperbolic Kellner’s claims may sound to some, it’s also time to realize that TiVo and Replay aren’t the only alternatives. Microsoft is pushing a PC-based PVR product that records to a hard drive. DBS offers options. And cable distribution via set-tops will push it all to critical mass. PVRs won’t kill television programming. But people who brush the issue aside might.

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