June 24, 2013

Why Do Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) Suck So Bad?

Time OnDemand - photo by Jason AlleyIt didn’t have to be this way. Digital video recorders (DVRs) were supposed to give us complete control of our television viewing. I got my first DVR (ReplayTV…ah, what a blast from the past) 13 years ago, and it was indeed a nice improvement over the video cassette recorder (VCR). But instead of mastering our TV experience, we are slaves to lackluster technology that I suspect is crippled because of greed, not technological limitations.

Sure, (owning) a DVR is still preferable to not owning one, but why in the year 2013 do we still program DVRs in much the same way we programmed VCRs? Even more “advanced” VCRs allowed programming via TV schedule. But the killer feature that is still lacking is the intelligence to start and stop a recording when a show actually starts and finishes, not when it’s scheduled. Anyone who has tried to record a sporting event knows they need to “pad” extra time at the end or risk missing the conclusion of the game.

Turns out this technology exists, and well, is it so hard to believe it could exist? In a world of instant internet communications, it’s hardly a technological leap to embed real-time start and stop codes in the TV signal fed to our DVRs.

Slate — It’s easy to imagine a universe in which DVRs worked better. Rather than forcing TV watchers to pad their recordings manually, broadcasters could send a signal to cable and satellite providers when a program begins and another when it ends. Your DVR would grab these signals, ensuring that it starts each recording when it should start and ends it when it should end—not at some (often-wrong) scheduled time, but at the real time. This wouldn’t just solve ball, stick, and puck problems. It would also benefit everyone who’s suffered the pain of missing the last joke on 30 Rock because the show runs just a little bit beyond its allotted time.

All right, so we have an idea of how this would work. Is anyone living in this DVR utopia?

[L]et us take a journey to this magical land where DVRs work as they should. Our tour guide is Raj Patel, the chief solutions architect for the United Kingdom’s Freesat, a partnership between ITV and the BBC that provides free satellite TV service to 1.7 million homes. Patel explains that broadcasters supply Freesat and certain other international television providers with what’s called “present and following” information—that is, the identity of the program that’s airing right now and the one that’s scheduled to air next. Even if a program (like, say, a sporting event) is supposed to end at 10:30 p.m., the broadcaster will not change that present and following data until the game is actually over. A customer’s DVR, in turn, will not stop recording until it’s been signaled that the present and following information has changed. This feature is called “accurate recording,” and that’s exactly what it is. It means you’ll never miss the end of a game—not even a Champions League final that goes into extra time.

This isn’t a special feature reserved exclusively for couch potatoes with British accents. NorDig, the body that specifies digital TV standards in Scandinavia and Ireland, also mandates that DVRs come equipped with accurate recording technology. This feature is also available in Australia, where the TV provider Freeview calls it “intuitive recording” and brags that “you will never miss the end of a recorded show again” thanks to a system in which each show gets a unique reference code.

So America is still the place where many ideas are created, but increasingly these ideas are perfected elsewhere. But surely we can expect this technology to reach our shores in the near future, right?

Based on interviews with multiple people at various industry stakeholders, I believe that accurate/intuitive/non-terrible recording would be feasible in the United States. The reason it doesn’t exist, I believe, is that American broadcasters and service providers don’t want it to exist.

Well I can’t say that’s surprising. I’m trying to figure out why broadcast and cable networks still insist on shifting the start and end times of their shows so often. It would be fine if we had this “accurate recording” technology. But because we do not, I can’t help but think the networks do this on purpose as a means to hold on to an outmoded style of TV viewing. Sorry, technology marches on. Keep it up, and more people are going to cut the cord.

photo by Jason Alley

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