Illustration: Shira Inbar

‘They Thought It Was Black Magic’: An Oral History of TiVo

How the original DVR paved the way for Netflix and the cord-cutter movement

Tom Roston
Published in
21 min readApr 2, 2019


IIt’s hard to believe, but a scant 20 years have passed since viewers were unshackled from their televisions. For decades, NBC told us Thursday nights were “Must See TV” and ABC insisted it was “TGIF” Friday, so we did as we were told and stayed home to watch Friends, Seinfeld, and Full House.

Then, in 1999, two former employees of Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Graphics (SGI), Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay, introduced a revolutionary new product: a digital video recorder, or DVR. The product, named TiVo, seamlessly recorded shows, paused live television, and allowed users to fast-forward through the commercials. Sure, you could achieve similar wonders with a VCR, but the process was so laborious that few would try. Plus, TiVo included an algorithm to make suggestions about the shows we might want to watch.

TiVo was a giant leap into the digital age that can be traced to the ambitious “Orlando project,” a 1994 venture by Time Warner to use televisions to fully network a community in Florida so that people could email, shop, and choose movies on their TV screens. Time Warner had enlisted SGI, with Barton as the lead software system architect and Ramsay developing the workstations. But the project was ahead of its time and too expensive to have practical application in a predigital world.

After the Orlando project folded, Barton left SGI. In 1997, he and Ramsay recognized an opportunity: letting users easily record and watch their favorite shows on their own time. “They didn’t just want to build something good. They wanted it to be legendary,” says Richard Bullwinkle, who would become TiVo’s official chief evangelist. “This was their chance at immortality.”

Their hubris paid off. At the dawn of the millennium, TiVo represented the future of television. It was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, from Howard Stern to Oprah. It was so successfully branded that TiVo became a verb, like Xerox. And deservedly so—it revolutionized how we watched TV and paved the way for the streaming era.

Yet despite its impact, there is a perception that TiVo didn’t quite live up to its promise. In 2016, TiVo…



Tom Roston