How TiVo Can Get Its Groove Back

Things have not been going well for TiVo (TIVO) lately. The company released its latest quarterly results at the end of August, and guess what: People just don’t want to pay up to $17 a month for a box that records TV if their cable company offers them the same thing for a third of the price. TiVo only gained 41,000 subscribers last quarter, compared to 74,000 in the same quarter last year. They also lost another 350,000 DirecTV (DTV) subscribers because the satellite provider doesn’t carry TiVo anymore. And an unexpected inventory write-down charge saw the company’s second-quarter net loss more than double.

It really seems like there are only two options left for TiVo: Either become an IP shell company that lives off of the patent licensing fees other DVR distributors will likely have to pay to TiVo soon and let your own subscriber base slowly bleed to death, or finally become innovative again, and change the rules that define our collective TV experience one more time.

Here are a few unsolicited ideas for TiVo to get back on track:

Open up the box. TiVo has done some exclusive deals with a few select video podcasters to feature their content on the company’s DVR. Users can subscribe to these shows and watch them on their regular TV. That’s a great start. But why doesn’t TiVo just open up the box for every video podcaster? Sure, there are some minor technical challenges, but every serious podcaster offers more than one file format anyway. TiVo could even help to monetize podcasts with custom commercials and sponsorship deals.

Get a better online programming guide. Here’s something that your generic cable box doesn’t offer: TiVo users with broadband access can program their recorders through the company’s Web site. Unfortunately, the site still resembles the listings in TV Guide, making me browse through tons of channels that I don’t care about at all. Learn your lesson from personal start pages like Netvibes. Just give me access to the stuff I want. And please, don’t restrict it to the channels I’m getting from my cable company. Show me what’s on HBO even if I don’t have HBO –- and then let me buy shows a la carte through Amazon Unbox.

On second thought, make that: Become the ultimate programming guide. Feature TV channels, video podcasts, Unbox and maybe even Joost programming, and then link to multiple sources to get the content. Show users what’s streaming now on, and then give them the option to save the same shows in HD and without commercials to their TiVo with one click. Trust me, there is really no better advertisement for a DVR than a mediocre Web-stream that gets interrupted ten times by the very same Glad trash bag commercial.

Get on the social Web. Make widgets. Get a Facebook app. Give your users social networking options from directly within TiVo –- anything that makes them show off and discuss what they are watching. People love to talk about TV. DVRs have taken away from that conversation by liberating us from schedules. The fact that you don’t have to watch Heroes on Monday night anymore also means that you won’t be talking about it on Tuesday morning. TiVo can revive that water-cooler talk by bringing it online and connecting together fans of the same show.

Unbundle cable. You know why people stopped watching television? Because they don’t see the point in paying $60, $80 or $100 per month just for the privilege to get Weeds and Dexter. The solution? Team up with Showtime and compete with the Comcasts (CMCSA) and Dish Networks (DISH) of the world. Offer day-to-day access to popular shows through Amazon’s (AMZN) Unbox and bundle it with the TiVo subscription fee. Paying $17 a month just for your DVR service is crazy, period. Paying $25 for TiVo plus a select package of Showtime shows delivered via broadband through Amazon Unbox, on the other hand, is reasonable –- especially if it saves you a bunch on your cable bill. This is probably the riskiest move, because the company might anger allies and licensing partners. But does TiVo really have that much to lose?

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