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FEBRUARY 10, 2003

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Perhaps it was inevitable, but the once-charming Osbournes are now
insufferable. The final straw came during Super Bowl weekend, when
America's most profane family appeared in an advertisement for
Pepsi Twist. Ozzy Osbourne, the heavy-metal rocker whom MTV cameras
have revealed to be just another beleaguered suburban dad, was his
typical stammering self, bickering with the kids in the Osbourne
kitchen. But Ozzy's incoherence ("but-but-but-but") seemed
calculated and irritatingly phony.Still, in a way this artifice was fitting--it has become the
crippling flaw in the second season of "The Osbournes." Ozzy and
Co. now seem less like nutty, Beverly Hillbillies-ish nafs than a
group of spoiled celebrities playing the role of rich and famous TV
stars. In the beginning, Kelly Osbourne was a very typical,
smart-mouthed, somewhat homely teenager. Now she is a pop star,
recording a CD, picking fights with Christina Aguilera, and becoming
a regular on the Hollywood celebrity circuit. Her brother, Jack,
once an angry loner, had a cameo on "Dawson's Creek" last fall and,
in one recent episode, tartly warned Kelly not to get hair spray on
his Prada jacket. Ozzy, meanwhile, strains to outdo his own
reputation. Recently, we saw him building a bonfire on the beach
behind the Osbourne manor. After much stupid yelling at the rising
tide that threatened his flames, he announced his intention to warm
his butt by the fire, then turned around and pulled down his pants.
It wasn't funny; it was sad.

Sadness, though, is the only thing that keeps the Osbournes from
being entirely phony and thus truly dislikable. Over the past year,
Ozzy's wife, Sharon, was diagnosed with colon cancer--which, while
she has recovered quite well, put a damper on the show's
insouciance. And Ozzy recently seems to have lapsed back into
alcoholism. I suspected this when I saw him the night of the White
House Correspondents' Dinner last year. I happened to be entering
the annual Bloomberg after-party just as he was leaving, looking
even more slack- jawed and glassy-eyed than usual and clinging to
Sharon and a bodyguard. He zeroed in on a man standing next to me,
declared, "I love you," and planted a kiss on his face. Sharon
coaxed him away. I couldn't imagine what this rather
ordinary-looking man had done to win Ozzy's affection, so I asked.
"I've never met him before in my life," the man replied.

The show's decline is a shame, because I've never been more excited
about television. You see, I've just joined the small but
fast-growing club of TiVo owners. TiVo may be the greatest advance
in day-to-day convenience since e-mail. It is essentially a digital
VCR--but that's like comparing a conventional oven to a microwave.
TiVo is ridiculously easy to program: You simply scroll through a
menu of upcoming shows and click on the ones you want. A quirky
"bloop" noise (part of the company's wacky aesthetic to convey
user-friendliness) confirms your choice. Unlike a VCR, TiVo, if
instructed, will record a particular program on a regular basis:
reruns of "The Simpsons" every night, "Meet the Press" every week,
your favorite basketball team anytime it's playing. For the first
time, TiVo allows you to take control of the TV schedule rather than
the other way around.

But you can also begin to suspect that your TiVo has taken control
of you. A TiVo device can "think," building a profile of you based
on your viewing habits and then recommending shows. It's similar to
Amazon.com's "If you liked this, you might also like" technique.
The difference is that TiVo a) is in your living room and b) will
often come to life and record programs you never asked for. This
has led some TiVo users to fret. A recent Wall Street Journal
article hilariously documented this phenomenon, most memorably
illustrated by the complaint "My TiVo thinks I'm gay." It seems
some straight men, who recorded programs TiVo considered
gay-themed, found that their devices were collecting all kinds of
gay-oriented programming in an effort to please them. Some of these
viewers say they've begun overcompensating: They're now recording
war documentaries, the Playboy Channel, and MTV's fleshy spring
break coverage to prove their manliness to their TiVos. As a
result, one man complained to the Journal that his TiVo now thinks
he's a Nazi. Another says his wife is growing alarmed by all the
bikini-babe programs he's accumulating.

My TiVo seems to grasp my heterosexuality well enough, but it does
insult my intelligence, suggesting programs featuring the antics of
cute animals or sports like bowling and fly-fishing. This week it
has flagged upcoming episodes of "MacGyver" and, perhaps concluding
I am either eight or 80, "Lassie." Clearly there has been some kind
of misunderstanding. But there's no harm done. My real concerns
about its intentions run deeper: Perhaps it's the sleek facade, the
silently glowing lights, or the tendency to do things without my
permission, but my TiVo reminds me of HAL 9000. My fear is that one
day it will regretfully inform me, in that Kubrickian deadpan, that
the mission has changed and that I am to await orders from the
office of Total Information Awareness.

There's a more serious cause for alarm about TiVo, too. Because
nearly all your shows are recorded and can be fast-forwarded at
lightning digital speed, TiVo makes sitting through commercials
seem like a tragic anachronism. Which is why, I suspect, the more
people skip advertisements, the more advertisements and shows will
have to blend together. What this means is a steady growth in the
practice of product placement. The Fox TV hit "American Idol," for
instance, charged Coca-Cola roughly $10 million to have contestants
lounge on large couches upholstered with the Coke logo. According
to one analysis by Joyce Julius %amp% Associates, the payoff for a
mere 23 seconds of "exposure time" for the paper Coke cups used by
the show's judges was worth nearly $175,000 in standard
advertising--and that's not even counting the couch.

The good news is that advertisers are reportedly highly sensitive to
the perils of alienating viewers with heavy-handed placements. In a
recent New York Times article, an ad executive named David Raines,
vice president for integrated communications at the North American
division of Coca-Cola, tried to define that middle ground between
positive associations and turning people off. "[T]he brand
integration we did, from the consumer point of view, felt organic
and not obtrusive," Raines boasted, "and didn't take away from the
entertainment experience." I fear the opposite--not that advertising
will invade TV shows but that TV shows will invade advertising. The
Osbournes' Super Bowl Pepsi commercial bizarrely mirrored the show
itself. Either way, it looks like advertising and "the
entertainment experience" are converging. It might be time to set
your TiVo to C-SPAN.

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