Remember the TiVo scare? Back at the turn of the century, TiVo - the first personal video recorder to hit the market - came second only to the Millennium Bug as the greatest threat to civilisation as we then knew it.
PVRs (machines that not only store programmes on computer hard drives, but that can also anticipate the sorts of programmes you're likely to want to record) were going to slash "live" TV audiences, which would in turn reduce the entire ad industry to a charred wasteland.
That's because people who watch time-shifted programmes tend to fast-forward through the ads and on some systems there is software to ensure that the break isn't recorded in the first place.
Serious stuff. There was, for instance, an outbreak of mass hysteria at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2000. But just like the Millennium Bug, this particular Weapon of Mass Advertising Destruction failed to materialise.
PVRs haven't gone away. They just haven't achieved the penetration or change in viewing habits that were predicted. Yet. Sky might be about to change that. It announced last week that it is putting £20 million behind a renewed marketing effort for its Sky Plus system.
Is it time for us to get scared again? David Fletcher, the head of Medialab at Mediaedge:cia, isn't so sure. "The more stations you have, the more likely you are to want some form of choice management. The paradox is that people always want more choice but having too much choice can be stressful. PVRs are good in that respect. But technology forecasts should always be downgraded because if you look at the people who specialise in technology forecasting, their clients are usually the technologists themselves," he says.
Fletcher also argues that live TV fulfils a powerful emotional need: "It provides a clock for our lives. In every other area of our lives, the clock has gone - you can now work or shop at anytime. But there's a fundamental need for structure in life and making sure you're home in time for Coronation Street can provide you with that structure."
Total UK penetration of PVRs is estimated to be around 200,000 homes - less than 1 per cent of UK homes. The Sky target is to double its share of the market from its current level of around 150,000 to 300,000 by next summer. This would mean that the market as a whole would still only cover 3 per cent of UK homes. Hardly earth-shattering but adoption will run ahead of the average in households with the most desirable demographic profiles.
Andy Bolden, the UK advertising director of GlaxoSmithKline, says he can't see any immediate cause for concern as he doesn't believe that penetration will accelerate dramatically. "How many more gadgets can people own? For the foreseeable future, I think we're still at the early-adopter stage as far as PVRs are concerned. Yes, it will start to get more interesting and I think it will have long-term implications for people's repertoire viewing. At the moment, it's possible to categorise (audiences) by genre but with PVR viewing, I think existing patterns will further fragment and a particular audience you're interested in could be spread across 14 different channels."
Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, agrees.
He says: "Sky Plus is a vast improvement on previous PVR technology. However, there is little evidence yet that it will lead to a significant increase in playback viewing or reduce advertising effectiveness. Given that non-terrestrial channels take the majority of viewing in these homes, they will benefit most from the increased ability of viewers to watch and record multichannel at the same time."
Howard Nead, the managing director of PHDiQ, says: "Research shows that it may not be the end of the world but it's certainly true that if you have a PVR it changes some of your viewing some of the time and that can have considerable effects, particularly as regards advertising."
But it's certainly not the simplistic story beloved of scaremongers.
He explains: "It's true you can fast- forward through breaks but you can't go too fast or you'll miss the start of the programme again so you tend to go at six times normal speed. That means that you notice the ads - and if you've seen them before and know them it means that you are getting a small prompt. Goodness knows how you would assess the value of that but it's there. Overall, the message to advertisers remains the same. Television is still a powerful medium for communicating your message but you need to explore."
David Fletcher: "The real determinant where television viewing habits are concerned is as it always was - availability to view. Television is fundamentally a passive activity. You switch the box on and say, 'Box, entertain me.' To make decisions about what you might want to watch becomes an active thing and that tends to go against the grain."
Andy Bolden: "If an audience you're interested in is fragmented across even more channels, that in turn will have implications for the type of creative executions we run. It's the environment argument - an ad suitable for one channel might not be suitable for another even though the audience is the same."
Paul Curtis: "We will have to wait for the next generation of receivers before we see any impact on how people watch television and consume advertising. Sky Plus is definitely not a killer application but it may help reduce the divorce rate in some Sky homes."
Howard Nead: "The early adopters were clearly obsessed with ordering their own television schedules but they are clearly in a minority. There will come a time when people will have grown up with PVRs but those who have grown up with linear television don't tend to be so obsessed with escaping from linear television."
- "The real determinant where TV viewing habits are concerned is availability to view. TV is fundamentally a passive activity. To make decisions about what you might want to watch becomes an active thing and that tends to go against the grain." - David Fletcher head of Medialab, Mediaedge:cia
- "If an audience you are interested in is fragmented across even more channels, that will have implications for the type of creative executions we will run. An ad suitable for one channel might not be suitable for another, even though the audience is the same." - Andy Bolden UK advertising director, GlaxoSmithKline
- "We will have to wait for the next generation of receivers before we see an impact on how people watch television and consume advertising. Sky Plus is definitely not a killer application but it may help to reduce the divorce rate in some Sky homes." - Paul Curtis managing director, Viacom Brand Solutions
- "The early adopters were obsessed with ordering their own TV schedules but they are clearly in a minority. There will come a time when people will have grown up with PVRs, but those who have grown up with linear TV don't tend to be so obsessed with escaping from it." - Howard Nead managing director, PHDiQ.