TV TOWER : Personal video recorders, top, are seeking to mount a pile of television peripherals: VCRs, DVD players, cable boxes and video-game machines

    How much would you pay never to see another talking frog or battery-powered bunny again? To program your own all-Luke Perry channel? To add impromptu bathroom breaks to live broadcasts? Replay Networks and TiVo, creators of new digital-TV recording devices, are popping the question, working to persuade you to add yet another cube to the towering ziggurat of entertainment--cable box, VCR, DVD and video-game player--on your TV table. They say their new gadgets could just change TV itself in the process, a possibility that has the networks more than a little nervous. Lawyers have been summoned.

    Personal video recorders, or PVRs (also called "digital video recorders" and "personal TV"), save programs to internal hard drives that can hold 10 to 30 hours of programs. Sounds like a VCR, but there's a big difference: using a phone line, the players download program schedules that pop up on the screen, where you click on a show rather than punching in times and channels and hoping you have got it right. This feature is free with Replay, while TiVo charges $9.95 a month, $99 a year or $199 lifetime. The ReplayTV box, currently sold only online, starts at $699; TiVo, recently arrived in retail stores, at $499.

    Manufacturers hope the ease of the interface will win over people who have given up mastering their VCRs. The result, if users embrace it, is the telefuturist's grail: TV on demand. "It takes away the meaning of prime time," says Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group. "The time a show is broadcast becomes meaningless." ReplayTV allows users to create "channels" based on search criteria, like home-improvement shows or Steve McQueen movies. TiVo lets you search by category and makes recommendations based on how you have rated other programs.

    Equally interesting is what the devices do with live programs. You can rewind or pause in the middle of a broadcast while it keeps recording--say the doorbell rings with the count at 3 and 2 and two runners on--resume watching from that point, then skip ahead to catch up to the live broadcast if you want. And that's not all you can skip. Among the players' most anticipated, and controversial, features are buttons that allow you to flash past commercials at super-high speed.

    Analysts give TiVo, which plans to sell shares in an IPO, the early lead in the competition, noting that it has outstripped Replay in sales and investment partnerships. Last week, apparently to boost its dealmaking power with Hollywood, Replay named Kim LeMasters, former president of CBS Entertainment, as its chairman and CEO. "They have not brought me in for my ability to figure out what bugs are on the cpu," LeMasters says. "They brought me in for that portfolio I brought from Hollywood and for my different mind-set and my ability to examine the marketplace."

    For PVR companies, the money may eventually be, as it was for Microsoft, not in the hardware but the software: the interface, program databases, associated content like TV "magazines" to guide users and advertising. (Neither system currently shows ads, but each has discussed future possibilities, including sponsorships.) "Our strategy is to embed it into other boxes," says TiVo ceo and cofounder Mike Ramsay. "We're going to build it into television sets and DVD players... It will eventually get embedded into every device." Ultimately, several companies will manufacture the boxes under license. Philips currently makes TiVo's box, and this month TiVo signed another deal with Sony; Replay has a similar agreement with Panasonic.

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