Belatedly, TiVo Makes Its Play For Cord-Cutters

TiVo shot to fame, if not widespread acceptance, on the ability of its digital video recorders to impose order on the unruly smorgasbord of cable-TV programming. Which makes its latest product—its first set-top box that won’t work with cable—a bit of a head-scratcher, at least at first glance.

The new “limited edition” device, the TiVo Roamio OTA (for “over the air”) DVR, is the company’s attempt to appeal to cord-cutters, a growing group of TV viewers who eschew pricey cable packages for cheap or free streaming and broadcast options. It’s a striking move, and certainly an indication that TiVo understands that the TV landscape it grew up in is shifting—even if it doesn’t plan to sacrifice its valuable partnerships with cable and satellite providers just yet.

TiVo’s clear hope is that the Roamio OTA will make it more relevant amid a growing array of smart TVs and streaming boxes like Roku. Its pitch: You may not need us to search out and record your shows on cable, but we can do something similar for terrestrial HDTV broadcasts, while giving you the major streaming services in one place. 

For a price, of course.

Thinking Inside The Box

Roamio OTA is basically a stripped-down version of the company’s full-fledged premium Roamio boxes, except that you can’t hook it up to cable or satellite service. Instead, it’s limited to recording programs you can receive via an over-the-air antenna (thus the OTA) and to searching out things you’d like to watch on streaming services like Netflix.

The box will sell for $49—about par for your average streaming box. But it still requires TiVo’s standard $15 monthly fee (and that’s with a year-long commitment). It’s considerably cheaper than the company’s previous entry-level TiVo Roamio, which starts at $199. For that money, you get four tuners, 500GB of storage space, Wi-Fi, access via mobile devices, online streaming services and that popular TiVo remote and menu interface. 

The company’s primary pitch is to give cord-cutters a single place to search over-the-air TV shows and Internet videos from services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube, while also offering tightly controlled mobile access to recorded shows. Like its brethren, the Roamio OTA will let you shuttle recorded programs among other TiVo boxes in your household or to iPhones and iPads using the TiVo app.

That sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately, there’s a downside: that pesky subscription cost. People can already stream using other, cheaper device such as the Roku or the Chromecast, neither of which have recurring fees. Folks who bypass cable TV because of price may not take kindly to shelling out $15 every month to record shows that, in large part, are available from places like Hulu for $8 per month—or for free.

Testing—1, 2, 3

Instead of launching broadly, the latest TiVo is rolling out in test mode in select Best Buy locations on September 14. According to the company, there are some very reasonable and pragmatic reasons for that. With no cable card, the new box will rely on signals culled from antennas, which can be a tricky affair.

A TiVo representative told me via email that:

… the intricacies around antenna usage (everything from the density of trees on someone’s street to general topography) and the variety of signal strength in specific markets does present unique challenges—which is why we’re testing the product to get a better sense of how the customer will navigate signal issues, pair the product with the best antenna for their location, etc. If all goes smoothly, we’re open and ready to expanding on this test.

Of course, it’s hard to overlook the possibility that the company may also be testing its pricing, to see how much people are willing to spend. My guess is that this subscription cost is high, even for an established elder statesman of TV technology.

Over the past 16 years, the company has developed an ardent fanbase. But staying relevant amid the swelling ranks of set-top boxes, dongles and smart TVs may be a tough proposition. And charging high subscription fees may not be the best way to make inroads with today’s newfangled TV audiences. 

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