TiVo announces KidZone, this parent rejoices

Sammy is 5 and a half months old, and he won’t begin watching TV for another year and a half. (Kimi and I are doing our best to limit his TV exposure, per the 1999 American Academy of Pediatrics advice to not allow children under 2 to watch TV; a PBS FAQ covers most of the issues and is fairly balanced, even when you consider the source.)

Almost all the shows I watch won’t be appropriate for him to see until he’s at least 12 — if not 18. But I do think it’s ok for him to start watching certain shows and movies when he’s old enough. In anticipation of that TV watching, I’m starting to get familiar with some of the shows that are popular for young kids. I hope to steer him away from Barney, because I suspect we’ll both enjoy other shows more — but what shows? I have no idea what the best choices are. And once he knows how to use the peanut remote, I don’t want any chance of him accidentally switching on CSI or Sopranos.

Well, today TiVo announced a suite of new — and free! — features for standalone boxes (to be released later this year) that will help parents decide what their children should watch. You’ll also be able to create a safe zone that hides your shows, creating a sandbox for your kids to play in. You can read the official press release about KidZone, as well as the new TiVo KidZone page, as well as Nova’s blog entry about it (from the official TiVo blog). Pony was heavily involved in this, and he’s been chatting me up about it for months. (He’s off in New York today helping with the demos and press conference.) Believe me when I say that a lot of thought was put into the features, and the demo is killer. I’m really excited that we’re doing this.

My team wasn’t directly involved in this initiative — it’s more of a client change than an operations change. So although I didn’t get to help design or deliver this project, as a new parent, I’m happy TiVo has bolstered our already-really-good parental controls with something special and unique. (I haven’t seen any other DVR offer anything remotely similar.)

Parents already know that TiVo is a lifesaver (new parents really need TV on their own idiosyncratic schedule, not the networks’ regimented schedule) but now I think TiVo’s even more of a necessity for a family.

There’s quite a bit of coverage of this announcement: Dave Zatz, Thomas Hawk, Engadget, PVRWire, the New York Times, C|Net, and others. I’m not really pleased that it was pitched as a “major announcement” ahead of time (although a new free service feature honestly should be considered big news) — because people expect a major announcement to be about a new partnership, or a new hardware platform, or a new revenue model. So while I am excited about this announcement, I can see why someone who isn’t a parent would be underwhelmed.

I’m also upset that someone at TiVo leaked it a day ahead of time. Leaks really undermine our ability to work with the bloggers and press. Shame on you, whoever you are.

Already I see that we’ve taken a little criticism that this feature is for standalone TiVo DVRs only, and won’t be available on combo DVRs. But that’s not up to us. DIRECTV controls the feature set for the DIRECTV with TiVo Receivers, so call them (1-800-DIRECTV) if you want to see this feature on your combo box and let them know how you feel.

The other criticism is that we don’t strip out commercials. I think that’s absurd. We’d probably get sued out of existence if we tried to strip out commercials, and besides, those commercial-skipping algorithms are both unreliable and expensive to license. Fast forwarding through content you don’t want to see — whether it’s commercials or credits or a segment you don’t like — is easier to understand and use, at least for me. I’ve seen two-year-olds fast forward with the best of them.

(EDIT at 3:45pm) Finally, there’s criticism of two of the partners available at launch who will be available to recommend shows: Common Sense Media and Parents Television Council. Folks, these are just recommendations. These groups will NOT in ANY sense be controlling what you or your children watch. Instead, you can choose to see the list of shows that these (and possibly other groups) recommend, and if you like their recommendations, then you can record the shows and try them out.

As far the PTC goes, I’m not a fan of their boycott campaigns, but c’mon, if this organization does approve of a show for your kid, you can bet it doesn’t have any objectionable content. If you choose to use their recommendations that doesn’t mean in any way that you endorse their politics or methods. And you certainly won’t be forced to use their recommendations. While I (and others) may not care for the PTC’s politics or methods, there are a great many of our customers who trust and respect this group, and my bet is that we only selected them after doing some market research and surveys.

. . .

In other news, today is my seventh anniversary of starting at TiVo. It’s startling to read what I wrote seven years ago about starting at TiVo (as part of Jef Morlan’s now-defunct Posi-Web project).

. . .

In other other news, it’s clear I’ll never be a so-called “A-List” blogger — I’ve been in meetings all morning (it’s review time), so I didn’t comment about our 8am press release until after 2pm. The blogosphere likes its updates faster than that. (And besides that, I write about myself and my family way too much to be A-List.) Good! I’ll stay on the Z-List. Who wants A-List pressure? Sounds like a headache to me.

19 Responses to “TiVo announces KidZone, this parent rejoices”

  1. Thomas Hawk Says:

    Stephen, good post. Yes, it initially does sound absurd to build in automatic ad skipping in KidZone, but before dismissing it outright think about it as a parent.

    If you had the choice between Sammy getting bombarded with ads for high sugar, high fat junk food and a toy culture that preached the materialism of more and more and more and more toys or not which would you choose? Your answer, I assume, would be simple, as a parent you’d choose that he did not subject himself to the barrage of ads from McDonald’s and Tony the Tiger and the rest of the lot — I think.

    Now, you are a responsible parent (I can tell that by the fact that you are in fact concerned about what the American Academy of Pediatrics is saying about Sammy’s TV useage, plus I’ve seen you in action with the little guy) and you very well may more stringently control what Sammy watches (in part with the help of this technology) going forward. But what about all the parents that will not take the effort to screen their kids TV that closely? Wouldn’t a TiVo enabled feature to assist them in zapping the commercials be helpful? Kids don’t fast forward commercials. They lack the maturity that we have and oftentimes see the commercials and programs run together as one long experience. Perhaps I’m over reacting as I saw plenty of commercials growing up as a kid myself, but then again, do we really know what effect this barrage has on the youth of America.

    Certainly to build automatic commercial skipping technology would open TiVo up to potential litigation. But is there any other way? For instance, thinking idealisticly here for a second vs. pragmatically, could, for instance individual commercials be deemed kid safe or not? Could these same watch dogs not somehow mark commercials for zapping or not based on the content? Could, for instance, a decision be made that to advertise for the latest Baby Einstein DVD would be permissable whereas an ad for McDonald’s would not be?

    And if TiVo did in fact build this technology (again this is an ideal world where we focus on what is truly best for the kids, not that which is most pragmatic for TiVo per se) and employed it, would litigation really take place? How popular would it be for Hollywood to sue TiVo if they built a very specific tool (for KidZone only) to allow only the abusive type of advertising to be stripped out? I’d imagine that the PR fallout over a lawsuit like this would be harsh.

    Alternatively, could a compromise be created. Could for instance a pay version of KidZone be made available that stripped out all of the commercials with the fee for the service going to the content providers to make up for their lost advertising dollars. Surely there is a way to quantify based on ratings and ad prices the value of an ad skipped and could a commercial free pay version be available. I know that I would pay $10 a month for instance in order to opt out of commercials for all children’s programming on my TiVo.

    I wonder if before dismissing an absurd and unpragmatic concept of auto ad zapping for kids, if there might not be some other ways to look at it. Normally I’d say it wouldn’t be worth the effort, but this initiative announced today has me giving serious thought to TV and kids and the bigger things in life that are much more important than TiVo and TV and high def and the whole lot.

    Would a KidZone only pay version be so far off the mark? While Madison Ave. would surely resist and they would be afraid of setting a new dangerous precedent for a slippery slope, if TiVo and parents made an honest effort to pay the content providers through subscription and it was clearly marketed for what we all know is the benefit of children, how could they in good conscience turn around and sue TiVo over this?

  2. Turtleboy Says:

    I think for the most part, KidZone is a good idea. My only concern, as I’ve commented on the forum, is the connection with the PTC.

  3. Stephen Says:

    Turtleboy, fair enough — I added a section about the PTC to my post. I’ll steer by the forum and check out your comments.

    Thomas, you make some excellent points, but what it comes down to is, who would editorialize about which commercials are good and which ones are abusive? I certainly wouldn’t want TiVo (even in an ideal world) to be making those kinds of decisions — I view us more as a common carrier. Only the parent can really make that choice. Personally, I would want Sammy supervised whenever he watches TV (as unrealistic as that may be, but I don’t want to use TV as a baby-sitting device). I imagine myself fast-forwarding past the commercials I don’t want him to see and teaching him how to evaluate the messages he sees — on TV and on billboards and on the side of the bus.

    I agree with you that commercials are difficult for children to ignore, and the barrage can seem overwhelming. When I do watch a show like Teen Titans and happen to watch a commercial, most likely it is insidious and hyperkinetic — carefully and calculatedly crafted to create tremendous desire in children. You’re right, I certainly don’t want Sammy watching that (but ideally he would learn to choose to avoid them on his own, just as I do today).

    For me and for most consumers, the real method to avoid commercials is not ad-skipping or ad-editorializing. Instead, most of us have two options for commercial free programming: PBS and pay channels. Personally, I already receive dozens of commercial-free channels carrying uninterrupted kids’ programming, including two HBO Family channels. I expect that most of the shows I choose to record for Sammy will be commercial-free.

    Another existing option is to transfer your show to your PC via TiVoToGo, edit the show as you desire, then transfer it back to your TiVo DVR. Most young kids I know love to watch the same exact episode over and over, so doing this for a few popular shows this is not really that impractical.

  4. Dave Zatz Says:

    Any chance we’ll see some video or screenshots from today’s demo? Though I am underwhelmed by the announcement I’m still anxious to see what it looks like (and hopeful it will drive sales and/or partnerships).

    The leak is surprising since you believe it to be an employee. I was thinking it must have been from someone close to the press or who got an early edition of the NY Times? An employee leak seems more troubling than a random beta tester or media leak.

  5. Stephen Says:

    Dave, I’ll find out what our plans are to share the video/screenshots. I know you’re underwhelmed (guessing that you don’t have kids!) but I’m excited, and I do believe it will drive sales and partnerships as well as it being a feature I personally will use.

    As for the leak: Hmm, I didn’t consider that it was a press leak. I just assumed it was an employee — purely based on the wording that the leaking site used: “Luckily, we have some peeps on the inside who have given us the good stuff.”

  6. StuBee Says:

    Hi Stephen, You directed me to post here…..instead of the TivoForum about your comments here. Fair enough…

    Here it be:

    I think Stephen (tivoopsmgr) is mistaken when he states on his blog…

    “As far the PTC goes, I’m not a fan of their boycott campaigns, but c’mon, if this organization does approve of a show for your kid, you can bet it doesn’t have any objectionable content. If you choose to use their recommendations that doesn’t mean in any way that you endorse their politics or methods”

    In fact using their suggestions does indeed endorse their politics. Here’s a bit of logic for ya: You have to remember PTC are only recommending shows that push their agenda. Therefore less people might watch a show that doesn’t appear on these ‘suggestions’. The networks may then decide to cancel a show, or not air a particular episode, because less possible viewers means less advertising revenue.

    Seems pretty clear to me, and that’s why these organizations have pull.

    I’m surprised by stephen’s comment.

  7. Dean Says:

    Stephen, PBS does have commercials nowadays. On Extended Basic cable, the only shows we get without commercials are from TLC (Peep, ToddWorld, Magic School Bus). They have 22-minute blocks, and currently show an 8-minute leader called Paz (the Penguin). To be fair to the other channels, there are fewer commercials around the 3-6 yr old kids shows than on normal TV (Disney sometimes intersperses 25-minute and 5-minute shorts, leaving 3 minutes of commercials, Sesame Street is nearly an hour long), and the commercials are usually inoffensive. Some of them are geared toward parents (baby wipes and things). Some of them promote other shows or Disney movies.

    I have to agree with Thomas Hawk about Tony the Tiger and Ronald McDonald. But, I told my kids that I don’t like those commercials, and my older daughter (they’re 3 and 5 yrs old) knows to FF through them. Both of them definitely know, and have known for a while, the difference between a commercial and the show they’re watching.

    I’m actually very satisfied with young children’s programming, from Arthur to Zoboomafoo. On the other hand, there is definitely a dearth of quality children’s shows that are geared toward 7 years and up, though. These tend to have interspersed commercials (often two 11-minute shorts in a 30-minute block), and there’s a lot of mental junk food geared toward that age group, both in the programming and the associated commercials. Once they get to that age, I think you need to be careful about what you let them they watch.

  8. Stephen Says:

    Dean, thanks for that info. I don’t watch PBS kids programming much (obviously) and had no idea that the once-brief sponsorships had morphed over time into full-blown commercials. I’ll check it out.

    StuBee, thanks for reposting over here. I disagree with you, because I feel that most (all?) of the PTC’s boycott campaigns are ineffective. Take a show like Nip/Tuck, which they hate with a passion, and have incited all of their members to boycott and also boycott the sponsors. Yet Nip/Tuck is still on the air despite these protests. So even the shows they DESPITE stay on the air. For the shows they don’t recommend, either it’s a quality show that the PTC dislikes for some reason. Well, there will be plenty of viewers and defenders if it’s a quality show. And note that TiVo’s KidZone feature will have many different recommendation services. Just because an individual show does or does not appear on a single organization’s list, and I don’t think it will have a sizable effect on the ratings.

    Finally, bear in mind that DVR users today don’t really figure into overall ratings and cancellation decisions that the networks make.

    If you believe that the shows that PTC recommends are only recommended because they push a particular agenda, I’d have to ask for evidence of that assertion. At their site they list some of the best shows of 2005 and 2006 — “Supernanny” and “Everybody Hates Chris” seem to reflect very different approaches to parenting, for example. I can’t piece together a one-sided agenda out of the shows they recommend.

    Of course, I happen to watch and enjoy a lot of shows they put in the “Worst” category, and the fact that PTC wants them off the air does put me a bit at odds with them. But the disagreement over whether a show is bad or not doesn’t change my ability to appreciate shows they think are good. I’m not going to stop watching Everybody Hates Chris because they like it. Similarly if they recommend a show for my son, I’ll check it out.

  9. StuBee Says:

    Hi Stephen,
    I find this statement somewhat strange “I disagree with you, because I feel that most (all?) of the PTC’s boycott campaigns are ineffective. ”
    But here’s Tivo legitimzing these boycotts, by partnering with them and therefore their suggestions will only list non-boycotted shows.
    So basically you think it’s okay to use PTC because no-one pays attention to their lists that Tivo will now be paying attention to.

    I’m just trying to point out that this is a slipperly slope Tivo is starting to head down……and from the first step, it ain’t looking good.
    Will I do future business with a company that partners with these types or orgs?…I’m not sure…I’ll see how things fan out and try to educate myself more on the impact of this type offering.

  10. Stephen Says:

    Stu, your arguments in this second comment are very different from the “logic for ya” argument that you posted in your comment. My point about the ineffectiveness of their boycotts was merely to start to refute your logical chain. There are plenty more thoughts in my comment and in the original post about PTC. My argument before is simply that there is a vast difference between boycotting one show versus not recommending a second show versus recommending a third show. The tactics of their boycotts are ineffective. The tactic of instead recommending shows that they do like is not objectionable, and if it’s effective, great! It’s likely to be a good show, and if it is, you and your child win, and that show wins (by gaining a viewer). Other shows that are not recommended are not going to go away. The worst that can happen is that you have to find out about it from some other source than the PTC.

    As for your new arguments in the second comment: Whether you and I like PTC or not, many of our customers do respect their recommendations, and they are an acknowledged leader in the area of researching and evaluating children’s programming. It’s something that some of our customers have told us they want.

    If PTC were the only source of recommendations, I would be more sympathetic to your argument. But instead, PTC’s recommendations are just one option, and you or I don’t have to use or even see their recommendations if we don’t want to.

    By analogy, TiVo lets you record programming on the Spice Channel if you receive that channel, and we list all of their programs. That doesn’t mean TiVo “endorses” or “legitimizes” all of the content of the Spice Channel. We’re just giving you data. You can use it or not, you can like it or not, that’s all up to you.

    How is empowering those many parents who do want to use their recommendations any kind of slippery slope? I think you’re reading a lot more into this than exists.

    Do I hope you’ll continue to do business with us? Of course. I do think it would be ironic if you boycotted us because of recommendations from an organization you don’t like because of their boycotts. 🙂

  11. StuBee Says:

    What I’m trying to say (and I hope both my prior points are relevant here) is that PTC may be ineffectual right now as you suggest…but with Tivo, and other companies, listening/promoting/validating their stance, then that’s when they will start to wield the power to change things….and I don’t mean in a good way.

    I do kinda understand your analogy of the spice channel…but I don’t think your offering 200 different children suggestion models (ie like the number of stations available)…isn’t the spice channel a service I would have to pay to use (like I don’t know 🙂

    Maybe I came off a little rough on this announcement….but when an organization is used that obviously has bias, it’s hard to sit still and say nothing.

  12. VinceA Says:

    I said it at the TCF and I’ll say it here. I hate the PTC but I’d rather they move their filtering efforts to the home end of things as opposed to the head end. That way those that want to use the PTC’s “suggestions” can and those that don’t want them, don’t have to use them… but the ‘bad’ shows will still be available. Most of the shows I love are on the PTC’s ‘bad’ list. For the record, I’m a parent.

    Maybe the PTC will push TiVo as a way for ‘concerned’ parents to ‘protect’ their children. More sales wouldn’t be a bad thing…

  13. Thomas Hawk Says:

    Stephen, what about instead of TiVo editoralizing about which commercials autoskip, having PTC or Common Sense Media do it. This would seem to be right up their alley.

    Alternatively, what about a pay version of KidZone where all ads were skipped and part of the money spent on subscriptions was kicked back to the content providers for loss advertising revenue. With TiVo’s research arm you could actually create a pool and divide it amongst the content providers actually based on real usage.

    Although you may be able to watch Sammy’s TV useage carefully and as you mention there is always the TiVoToGo hack (although inconvenient for sure), most parents do not watch their kids as carefully. Several critics have written about the teen obessity problem in the U.S. and the relationship between that and the barrage of high fat, high sugar foods bombarded at our kids.

    My wife and I happen to disagree about the TV thing. My son Jack (5) loves Teen Titans. My wife thinks it’s ok for him to watch it and won’t listen to my objections that he not. Since she’s at home while I’m working she mostly has the say. I’d love to be able to at least compromise and have him watch a version without those “carefully and calculatedly crafted” that you write about.

    It would be great to see TiVo do something along these lines.

    It is also unconscienceable that DirecTV is not embracing this technolgy for those of us with DirecTV TiVos. They should be shamed into adding it to for those of us with kids.

  14. Stephen Says:

    Good points Stu and Vince.

    The PTC exists, and like it or not it’s already a legitimate organization, and many people respect their recommendations — including many of our customers and potential customers. As Vince says, them working with TiVo in a way that people can CHOOSE whether or not to use their recommendations is not a bad thing.

    Sure, I’d like to see other organizations’ recommendations as well. Don’t forget that we’re launching with Common Sense Media in addition to the PTC.

  15. Robert Aitchison Says:

    Stephen, thanks for the excellent post which tries to address all the concerns over this new initiative.

    FTR I’m a parent of two boys, aged 8 and 12, I do control both the amount as well as the content of the TV they watch. I do use the built in TiVo parental controls to help me do that.

    I do think you are underestimating the importance of the partners that you choose.

    This one group is responsible for 99.8% of all FCC complaints (http://politics.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/12/06/231234&tid=153) and holds WAY WAY WAY too much power over the FCC.

    While the PTCs boycott campaigns (primarily aimed at cable shows they & the FCC currently have little to no control over) have been largely ineffective they have been frighteningly effective at controlling what we get on broadcast TV & radio. Janet Jacksons lame publicity stunt at the super bowl was the best thing that ever happend to them and now they routinely get their members to complain and express “outrage” to the FCC over shows that their mebers didn’t even watch.

    What’s even more disturbing is recent advances in the agenda in getting congress to grant the FCC powers to regulate cable like they do broadcast (http://www.fmqb.com/Article.asp?id=180189) with the same standards of “decency”, so the PTC can in effect further impose their own morality on the entirety of America.

    While this new initiative does seem to seek to put the control in the hands of parents (or more specifically, make it easier for parents to cede control to a third party) and I’m all about parents being in charge of what their kids watch I can’t get past the link to the PTC. TiVo has literally partnered with an extremist group with a frightening agenda and I can’t tell you how disturbing that is.

    As for the previous suggestion that the PTC might endorse TiVo for their members, that idea scares the heck out of me, it’s not unlikely, considering their past behavior that if they had a sizable minority of TiVo subscriberships that they could try to demand that TiVo impose their agenda on all TiVo subscribers.

    What I think would have been a better solution would be to create an HME like API that would allow parents to configure their own list of “approved” shows form whichever group they chose. The PTC could create & publish their own list if they wanted but there would be no official TiVo relationship, no implied endorsement with a group like this.

  16. JG Says:

    Stephen, just curious, was this “Kidzone” a Tom Rogers idea or was it already in the works before he arrived at TIVO last July?

  17. Stephen Says:

    JG, I don’t actually know who came up with it, but I think the answer is neither. I don’t think it was Tom’s idea, but it’s a more recent initiative than last July.

    Robert, PTC isn’t getting paid by TiVo for this (to my knowledge), and I highly doubt that any demands they place upon us would have any weight, no matter how many subscribers they make up. I don’t think they’re as “extremist” as you describe — and they seem to me largely ineffectual at gaining traction for the more outrageous boycotts and initiatives. But they do know good kid’s shows, and it only makes sense for TiVo to provide a range of sources for recommendations from all political spectrums — left, right, up, down. More sources will be added. PTC is just one choice. I think we’d get a huge backlash from more conservative groups if we left them off, so TiVo can’t seem to win here.

    Look, I’m as liberal as the next Californian, but the “guilt by association” argument for an arms-length relationship like this doesn’t fly with me. We took some flak recently for carrying the Rocketboom episodes that aired some anti-George Bush stuff, and that doesn’t make TiVo pro-Rocketboom or an endorser of Rocketboom’s politics. Like I said, we’re a common carrier, giving you tools. You don’t like PTC? Fine, don’t use their recommendations. Other people do like it. You don’t like Rocketboom? Fine, don’t subscribe.

    TiVo has always been about choice. Here, we’re giving you choices.

  18. Stephen Says:

    Thomas, that kind of commercial skipping is certainly an idea to consider but my instinct says there would be a lot of challenges, both on the engineering side and the business relationship side.

    Like you, I do worry about TV watching. My wife and I were discussing it last night (after she read the blog) and we agree we want to limit Sammy’s viewing and be there with him if there are commercials. I’m with you about Teen Titans — it does seem like more of a teenager show, and likely to be too intense in parts for a five-year-old.

    As for DIRECTV: I’d be ecstatic if we could offer this for all platforms. Start calling DIRECTV to let your preferences be known!

  19. John Restrick Says:

    The 1999 AAP paragraph from the PBS FAQ just seems like a non-sequitir. The arguments seems to be direct interaction is important so no TV. You could just as easily substitute any activity that did not involve direct interaction where the word TV is. No listening to music fits the argument just as well. The below is presented as if any exposure to TV should be avoided but the argument (as summarized in the FAQ) only really justifies the much less controversial recommendation not to substitute TV watching for direct interaction which makes sense. Of course they may be worried about slippery slope of some TV watching turning into lots – but then that should be said.

    “Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (eg, child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged.””

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