Why Do Americans Have the Worst DVRs?

Our digital recorders cut off the last minutes of sporting events and our favorite shows. That doesn’t happen in Europe.

Woman watching TV.

American DVRs are inferior to European ones for one very important reason.

Photo by Thinkstock

It took a few minutes shy of forever to get to the end of Game 1 of hockey’s Stanley Cup Final, but at least for non-Bostonians, it was worth the wait. Four hours and 38 minutes after the game began, Andrew Shaw finally scored the winning goal to push the Chicago Blackhawks past the Boston Bruins in the third overtime. The game’s not-so-sudden death didn’t come quite quickly enough for one unlucky hockey watcher. As that anonymous fan explained on Reddit, adding an extra two hours to the end of his DVR recording seemed like a smart move. But in the end, those buffer hours left him just six seconds shy of seeing the winning goal. Ain’t that a puck in the teeth.

I can relate. In the interest of sleep and sanity, I time-shifted the early rounds of the NBA playoffs, catching up on the previous night’s games each morning. Alas, my recording of Game 1 of the NBA’s Western Conference semis, in which the Spurs beat the Warriors 129–127 in double overtime, ended just before the final shot went in the air. (I think the Warriors could still pull this one out!) As a savvy DVR user, I of course padded my recording by an extra hour, just in case the game extended beyond its scheduled end time. But an hour, or even two, sometimes isn’t enough. That’s the peril of taping live sporting events. A long fifth set, a bee delay, or yet another period without the puck going in the net—all can lead to a game overspilling its programming window by hours. Worst of all, the sporting events most likely to be ruined in this manner are precisely the ones we most want to watch to the end: those extra-long, extra-tense games that go into overtime or extra innings.

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.

Here’s the good news: This hypothetical DVR utopia actually exists, and a lot of people are living in it. The bad news for me and my fellow Americans: The United States is trapped in the bowels of DVR hell, and we’re not going to escape any time soon.

Now, let 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.

Why do Brits and Aussies get to watch impeccable recordings of “football” while red-blooded, American football gets cut off by our inferior American DVRs? It’s not because the technology somehow doesn’t work on our side of the pond. 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. But we need to make our voices heard. The time is now to save our country from substandard DVR technology.

Broadcast standards aren’t uniform across the world. Europe, Australia, India, parts of Africa, and a bunch of other places comply with the DVB standard, while North America goes by something called ATSC. But Dave Arland, a spokesman for ATSC, says there’s nothing about the North American broadcast standard that would prevent any company here from implementing accurate recording.

Similarly, a source at a major U.S. television service provider—who refused to go on the record, perhaps fearing an onslaught of marauding customers—told me the company’s DVRs are capable of accurate recording. The issue, the source said, is that the broadcasters would need to provide them with real-time data on the start and end times of live events. That’s already happening in the United Kingdom and other places with accurate recording, but not in North America.

So what do the broadcasters have to say for themselves? Three networks I reached out to—Turner, Fox, and CBS—did not reply substantively prior to publication of this article. (I will update this story if they do.) And after initially offering to field questions on the topic, an ESPN spokesperson replied via email, saying, “At this time, ESPN will not be able to contribute here—it’s not entirely relevant to us as [the] majority of our content is consumed live.”

ESPN is not necessarily a huge villain here—their WatchESPN app and online service allows subscribers to watch full replays of recent games. Even so, the Worldwide Leader and other purveyors of sports programming would clearly prefer for all of us to watch sporting events live. An estimated 46 percent of American homes have DVRs, up from 3 percent a decade ago. As DVR penetration increases, people watch less live TV and skip more commercials. By comparison to pre-recorded fare, sporting events are relatively resistant to time-shifting—many of us want to watch with our friends, chime in on Twitter, and go outside and set a car on fire the instant the game is over. It makes sense, then, that broadcasters would do everything they can to preserve this last thin slice of programming that people seem inclined to watch live. So long as DVRing sporting events remains an uncertain proposition, those live viewership numbers should stay steady. If you can’t be sure that you’ll see the last few minutes of OT, then you’ll want to watch every important game as it happens—without fast-forwarding through the ads.

In this land without accurate recording, American cable and satellite companies have fashioned a jury-rigged system that works most of the time, for most kinds of shows. In the absence of real-time signals from broadcasters, time-shifters must use on-screen programming guides to schedule recordings. These guides are programmed by third parties like Rovi Corp. and Tribune Media Services, which obtain listings information (dates, times, titles, scheduled run times, etc.) from broadcasters, normalize that data, and provide it in a packaged format to Comcast, Dish Network, and the like.

As you’ve probably noticed, these guides don’t get updated in real time. According to TiVo’s vice president of product marketing Jim Denney, it takes about a day for a programming guide change—say, a program shifting to a different time slot—to ripple through that company’s entire system. That’s why, in the event of a last-minute scheduling shift, your DVR won’t record your favorite show. It also explains why providers have created something of a hack to deal with the uncertain end times of live programs. The set-top box provided by my cable company, Comcast, takes note when I’m DVRing a live event, and asks if I want to extend my recording by up to two hours. This is standard functionality across the United States: Instead of recording television shows for us, our cable companies ask that we scratch our heads and predict how long they’re going to last. It’s like hiring someone to mow your lawn, with the catch that he’ll only cut the grass for as long as you guess it will take him to finish the job. Hopefully you’ll guess right.

What are the chances that accurate recording will become a standard feature in these United States? TiVo’s Denney says that, though such a thing is technically possible, it would require a lot of coordination between content providers, cable companies, and technology firms. There would also have to be some deep thinking on what to do in the event of programming conflicts, such as an extended live event interfering with another, previously scheduled recording. “Everything is doable, but it’s a matter of how much effort someone’s willing to put into it,” he says.

What’s holding everyone back, Denney adds, is the lack of demand from customers. “We don’t have a whole lot of people saying, My God, I wish we could do this.”

I don’t think that’s evidence American TV viewers don’t want accurate recording. Rather, it reveals that they don’t know it exists. Well, America, it does exist, and it sounds amazing. Email your cable company. Call every TV station. Tweet at your congressman. Leave a copy of this article under your neighbor’s door. Say it loud, everyone: We want accurate recording, and we want it now.