The Wall Street Journal

November 26, 2002

If TiVo Thinks You Are Gay,
Here's How to Set It Straight
What You Buy Affects Recommendations
On, Too; Why the Cartoons?


Basil Iwanyk is not a neo-Nazi. Lukas Karlsson isn't a shadowy stalker.
David S. Cohen is not Korean.

But all of them live with a machine that seems intent on giving them
such labels. It's their TiVo, the digital videorecorder that records
some programs it just assumes its owner will like, based on shows the
viewer has chosen to record. A phone call the machine makes to TiVo,
Inc., in San Jose, Calif., once a day provides key information. As
these men learned, when TiVo thinks it has you pegged, there's just one
way to change its "mind": outfox it.

Mr. Iwanyk, 32 years old, first suspected that his TiVo thought he was
gay, since it inexplicably kept recording programs with gay themes. A
film studio executive in Los Angeles and the self-described
"straightest guy on earth," he tried to tame TiVo's gay fixation by
recording war movies and other "guy stuff."

"The problem was, I overcompensated," he says. "It started giving me
documentaries on Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Eichmann. It stopped
thinking I was gay and decided I was a crazy guy reminiscing about the
Third Reich."

He mentioned his TiVo tussle to a friend, who told an executive at
CBS's "The King of Queens," who then wrote an episode with a
My-TiVo-thinks-I'm-gay subplot.

A lot of gadgets and Web sites now feature "personalization
technologies" that profile consumers by tracking what they watch,
listen to or buy. The software, embedded in sites such as
and, then recommends other books, videos and music based on a
customer's tastes.

The Willies

Many consumers appreciate having computers delve into their hearts and
heads. But some say it gives them the willies, because the machines
either know them too well or make cocksure assumptions about them that
are way off base. That's why even TiVo lovers are tempted to hoodwink
it -- a phenomenon that was also spoofed this year on another TV show,
HBO's "The Mind of the Married Man."

Mike Binder, creator and star of that show, had set his home TiVo to
record his 1999 movie, "The Sex Monster," about a man whose wife
becomes bisexual. After that, Mr. Binder's TiVo assumed he would enjoy
a steady stream of gay programming. Unnerved, he counteracted the
onslaught by recording the Playboy Channel and MTV's spring break
bikini coverage. It worked, he says. "My TiVo doesn't look at me funny

His wife, however, was taken aback when she saw all the half-naked
women he was ordering through TiVo. He told her those women meant
nothing to him: "I'm just counterprogramming because TiVo thinks I'm
gay." She was unamused. The incident inspired an episode of his show.

Though some users contend TiVo has sex on the brain, TiVo's general
manager, Brodie Keast, explains that the box is merely "reacting to
feedback you give it." Still, the machine employs algorithms --
searching several thousand key details (favorite actors, movie and TV
genres) -- that leave some people wondering whether it is judging their

Mr. Karlsson, 26, says he "pre-emptively" found all the religious shows
in his TV listings and used the "thumbs down" button on his remote
control to tell TiVo he has no interest in them. (Giving three thumbs
down is the best way to block a program.) After that, his TiVo recorded
movies about creepy homicides. "They all have titles like 'Murder on
Skeleton Isle,' " says the computer system administrator in Cambridge,

He uses the "thumbs" button to tell TiVo he hates such films. He also
orders cooking shows, which softens TiVo's view of him. "I don't want
it thinking I'm an ax murderer," he says.

Mr. Cohen, 30, has a TiVo that mysteriously assumed he wanted Korean
news programs. The Philadelphia lawyer gave thumbs down to anything
Korean, and his TiVo got the message. Sort of. "The next day, it
recorded the Chinese news," he says.

TiVo's 500,000 subscribers use the box primarily to record programs
they specifically request, and many laud its ability to pause live
broadcasts and record a show's entire season. Still, in TiVo-focused
online chat-rooms and in secretive admissions to one another, some say
they resent being pigeonholed by TiVo's suggestions.

'A Pregnant Gay Man'

Like TiVo, other techno-profilers run hard with limited information.
Ray Everett-Church of Fremont, Calif., who is gay, ordered "Queer as
Folk" videos from Understandably, the site began suggesting
gay-related calendars and books. Then he bought a baby book for a
pregnant friend. So for weeks, the site also recommended parenting
books. He says it was as if decided he was "a pregnant gay

He fought back, he says, "by inundating it with additional data. I
searched for other stuff -- on politics, computers -- so it would stop
throwing baby books at me. Now it thinks I've abandoned the baby and
I'm preparing for a career in politics."

Mr. Everett-Church, a privacy consultant for businesses, predicts that
as techno-profiling increases, more people will purposely muck up their
profiles. They'll fear ordering books on mental illnesses or sexual
preferences because they'll wonder if they'll somehow be publicly

All techno-profiling companies contacted for this article said that
information gleaned is for the customer's personal use only. Still,
even founder Jeff Bezos knows the potential mortification

For a live demonstration before an audience of 500 people, Mr. Bezos
once logged onto (amazon.com1) to show how it caters to his
interests. The top recommendation it gave him? The DVD for "Slave Girls
 From Beyond Infinity." That popped up because he had previously ordered
"Barbarella," starring Jane Fonda, a spokesman explains.

Dawn Freeman, 23, a tax analyst in Lexington, Ky., has bought lowbrow
videos, such as "American Pie," from But she was aghast
when the site suggested Tom Green's gross-out performance in "Road

"I thought, 'I know I don't like high cinema, but have I really reached
the point where I'd like to watch Tom Green lick a mouse?" To even out
her Amazon profile, she went through the site finding "witty
independent films."

Her TiVo also thinks she's a sophomoric-humor-loving 12-year-old, she
says. It keeps giving her cartoons. "I know it's dumb to take it
personally, but it's in your face. These are supposedly objective
computers saying, 'This is what we think of you.' "

Dissing Ice Cube

A.J. Meyer, a 35-year-old Web site developer in Minneapolis, ordered
the DVD for "Scarface," the Al Pacino gangster movie, from
(netflix.com2). After that, the site kept recommending movies about
gangster rappers. He stopped the assault by giving negative ratings to
all movies starring Ice Cube. (Netflix allows members to rate any of
its 12,000-plus titles with one to five stars -- whether they have
rented a film or not. That helps the site calculate future

After Mr. Meyer ordered a documentary about New York from,
it pitched him countless documentaries -- even one on the history of
the thimble. He stopped the Ken Burnsification of his profile by
searching the site for plasma TVs. "That way, I identified myself as a
high-tech guy," he says. "The thimble is more low tech."

Virginia Heffernan, TV columnist for, doesn't understand why
some people are resistant to techno-profiling, or find it creepy. She
didn't look for any deep meaning when her TiVo kept giving her TV shows
in Polish. And after buying self-help books on, she accepted
that every time she logged on, the site pitched products to make her a
more self-fulfilled human being.

"I like the idea that someone cares," she says. "Even a machine."

TiVo users can program the machine to skip certain channels entirely.
But many users don't bother to figure out how to do it, or are too
intrigued by TiVo's recommendation process, says a spokesman. TiVo is
paid to promote programs and products it calls "advertainment" on a
special screen. But the company says none of these are given to users
as suggestions.

Some people have given up trying to manipulate personalization
technologies. Dino Leon, a hair-salon owner in Birmingham, Mich., says
his TiVo quickly figured out that he and his partner were gay. They
were OK with that, but just for fun, they tried to confuse the software
by punching in "redneck" programs, like Jerry Springer's talk show.

TiVo wasn't fooled, and kept recording gay shows. Mr. Leon believes the
box was giving them a message: "You're definitely gay. And you're
watching too much TV."

Write to Jeffrey Zaslow at [EMAIL PROTECTED]
URL for this article:,,SB1038261936872356908.djm,00.html

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Updated November 26, 2002

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