Users of the TiVo digital video recorder have reacted angrily to a new sponsorship feature that automatically records certain programmes, adverts and other promotional material.
One of TiVo's more innovative features is its ability to recommend programmes based on viewing habits, such as watching every episode of a soap opera or every film starring a certain actor.
But viewers in the UK were surprised this week to find that the second episode of the little-known BBC sitcom "Dossa and Joe" had been recorded without their knowledge and added to the system's main menu screen.
They were even more surprised to find that they won't be allowed to delete the programme for one week, and that more sponsored recordings are on the way.
TiVo defended the new "Advanced Content" feature, insisting that it doesn't adversely affect a viewer's usage of the system. Sponsored programmes are recorded on a reserved section of the hard disk, and only if the viewer isn't watching or recording something else.
Vice President of TiVo Europe, Andrew Cresci, told The Register: "This feature provides an innovative new way for networks and programmers to deliver interesting, new or exclusive content to TiVo subscribers."
"This does not change subscribers ongoing use of the product and we hope over time the value of the content provided will outweigh any perceived inconvenience this creates."
Some viewers have complained that the feature amounts to a hijacking of TiVo boxes with little regard for the owner's wishes. Others have been quick to dub it "spam television" and have suggested that it should have been introduced on an opt-in basis.
But Cresci points out that viewers who do not want to watch the sponsored programmes can simply ignore them.
"The feature was not introduced as 'opt-in' because as with similar features like Channel Highlights and Inside TiVo, these features are optional for users to use," he explained.
"In the future viewers could receive exclusive content or previews of new shows. The possibilities for delivery of content are interesting and we hope that viewers will find it valuable."
Although there have been complaints about license fee money being paid to TiVo, which still has a very small audience in the UK, it is clear why the BBC would want to promote "Dossa and Joe" in this way.
The series, written by The Royle Family and Mrs Merton creator Caroline Aherne, should have been a hit. But despite critical acclaim, ratings have been poor. The first episode attracted just 1.5m viewers, a figure that dropped to 1m for the second episode -- just 5% audience share for its time slot.
As much as the BBC has a responsibility not to squander license fee money, it also has a responsibility to find an audience for the programmes it invests in. Forcing "Dossa and Joe" upon the nation's TiVo owners, some of who are sure to watch it and then tune in next week, can only help.
After all, the toughest part of getting viewers to continue watching a television series is getting them to start watching it in the first place.
But ironically, due to the BBC's notoriously bad time-keeping and TiVo's strict adherence to schedules, the programme started late and therefore any TiVo viewers watching the recording would have missed the last few minutes.
Meanwhile, TiVo sponsorship in the US has been introduced in a more commercial way this week, as the system automatically recorded a video promoting Sheryl Crow's new album, along with two adverts for TiVo's distribution partner Best Buy.
These recordings were part of a strategy announced last week, described by TiVo as "advertainment" that "establishes far deeper communications with consumers".
The move towards this more direct form of advertising was inevitable. Although viewers own their set-top box, TiVo has free rein to update the system software and add new features.
The company has made no secret of its intention to work with broadcasters and advertisers, and to market products directly to its 400,000-strong captive audience.
And although there has been a backlash from some US viewers, there is little difference between what TiVo is doing now and the 'interactive' advertising on British satellite and cable channels. Such advertising is promoted as a somewhat gimmicky bonus and receives little, if any objection from viewers.
Another marketing strategy that TiVo has already trialled but not yet introduced is expected to combinine census data with personal information supplied by the viewer to deliver targeted advertising based on location, age, gender, wealth and lifestyle. ®