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Replay Users Sue

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 6/14/02 issue of R&R Robin Gross wants you to have a commercial free viewing experience. And she's willing to sue every studio in Hollywood for you to get it.

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Gross, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has teamed up with Ira Rothken, a San Francisco technology lawyer, and five plaintiffs from around the country to sue every content provider from Turner to Sony to MGM, asking a judge to declare the ability to skip commercials a virtual right. Also on their radar screen: time-shifting, space-shifting (moving a show you want to watch from your TV or cable system to your personal computer for later watching), and personal one-on-one sharing of shows among friends. Gross says, "The studios are going to have to face the fact that commercials aren't something we have to watch anymore."

How? By using the ReplayTV 4000 and 4500, devices that dramatically change the way one can manipulate the TV one watches. Those devices, from Sonicblue, are themselves the target of yet another lawsuit, brought by those very same studios that Gross and Rothken are suing. The studio's claim: a viewer's ability to watch television with a preference set to globally "skip commercials" while watching recorded shows is tantamount to the theft of that content. If we watch television shows and don't watch the commercials, we're stealing the content because we're violating the implicit agreement between the networks and the advertisers and the viewers: ads pay for the TV you watch so you don't have to pay directly.

The device is hardly perfect. Replay uses a combination of video black, audio silence and stopset timing to return back to the show; a recent episode of ER watched with Skip Commercials engaged would have left you scratching your head as the device skipped over vignettes that faded to silence and black and back up again, ruining the plot line.

In reality, you've been able to hit the fast-forward button on VCRs for years, zip through the commercials to get back into the show you're watching, and maybe, if an image from a spot catches your eye, you'll stop and watch. The Replay devices reduce that process to a check box.

Think this can't happen to you in radio or online streaming? Think again. People are already fast forwarding where they can through online streamed spots, and the rewind and fast forward buttons that will be available to us eventually with receivers for digital services like XM, Sirius and Ibiquity may land our industries squarely in the same boat: a potential disaster if advertisers demand that the rates we charge for advertising drop as the effectiveness of ads drop as people fast forward through them. Just the sort of nightmare Robin Gross is looking to create.

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