This is my brain on TiVo

Getting a digital video recorder almost cost this CNET News.com editor a few IQ points.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read
Getting TiVo last fall changed my life--and nearly ruined it.

I can talk about the ordeal openly now, having reined in the chaos brought on by my new gadget in those early months. Since then, I've almost broken the odd and inexplicable spell compelling me to sit in front of the TV for hours, programming and deprogramming my WishList and poring over unfamiliar shows just because my little box decided I should. If TiVo believed Flavor Flav's quest for love mattered, I wasn't going to argue.

It started innocently enough. Ambling through a mall one Saturday, I came upon one of those irresistible deals--buy a TiVo, get an almost-full rebate. All I had to do was pay the $299 lifetime service fee, which seemed reasonable for a device I'd heard such raves about. Anyway, my circa-1999 VCR was giving out fast. And as CNET News.com's personal-technology editor, I told myself, it's my duty to understand the way gadgets affect modern life.

My knowledge of current events was diminishing in direct proportion to the hours I spent parked in front of my TiVo.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my living room couch.

My unassuming move to a seemingly innocuous new gizmo became a leap to an entirely new lifestyle. It's not just that TiVo makes television watching easier through foolproof program recording, shows when you want them and commercial-free viewing, it's also that it makes television watching so effortless and engaging that you want to interact with your TiVo to the exclusion of lesser pursuits, such as sleeping or calling your mom.

Weird thing, too, since--save my embarrassing addiction to a reality TV show here or there--I've never been much of a "television person." Sure, pre-TiVo I logged a few hours a week--the nightly news, the aforementioned reality TV indulgences, "Mad TV" on Saturday nights. But suddenly, I was staying up far too late on weeknights to watch yet another replay of Jerry Rice's jive on "Dancing with the Stars." Free time that I once spent curled up with the newspaper or a novel was now allocated to E! Entertainment Television.

And my intellect started to show it.

My friends didn't say anything, but I'm sure they noticed the decline. I like to think I'm regarded as someone who can carry on a semicogent conversation about the world's goings-on. But gradually, if a discussion centered on the latest in Iraq rather than the latest on "The Bachelor," I found myself floundering. My knowledge of current events was diminishing in direct proportion to the hours I spent parked in front of my TiVo, which I had somehow programmed in favor of VH1 over PBS.

I mentioned my situation to a co-worker, who nodded empathetically. While her husband writes elaborate musical compositions, she confessed, she composes her Season Pass to the familiar boop-boop-boop warbles of the TiVo remote. We bonded, agreeing that TiVo ownership was like being part of some mind-bending cult. TiVo was onto something when it threw a Valentine's Day mixer to match up singles according to their TiVo WishLists.

At some point, my deteriorating mind finally started to bore me, and I took action. I began by expanding the configuration of my TiVo WishList to include news programs like "Washington Week" and "This Week in Northern California"--though naturally it still captured the "20 Greatest Celebreality Moments" and "Real Housewives of Orange County."

More importantly, perhaps, I enacted what one friend calls the "Grandma Rule" (you know, clean your room and then you get to go play outside). My version of the Grandma Rule went something like this: Watch the evening news at least long enough to get the headlines, and then, and only then, can you watch "Paris & Nicole: The Not So Simple Life." The more I weaned myself from on-demand TV, the more I once again appreciated simple joys, such as interacting with other remote-control-free human beings.

My habits aren't where they should be yet, but it's getting better. Last week, my fellow TiVo-obsessed co-worker and I attended an informational meeting on nonprofit volunteer opportunities, noting how they would supplant our TiVo time. And today, when someone asked if I'd read a specific editorial in the local paper, I felt proud to say yes.

My brain only gets to go around once, after all, and it's asking for my help.