Home > Big Thoughts > DVRs still suck

DVRs still suck

DVRs seem to have revolutionized television in the last decade. Ten years ago when they first appeared, Tivo and Replay TV were shocking devices that offered the utopian promises of skipping ads and having everything your way.

But I’m here to tell you it’s an illusion. The DVR is nothing but a VCR in a fancy tuxedo. It’s a 20th century concept on its last legs. The real revolution has yet to come.


The VCR was a revolution too, actually a much more significant one. The VCR created the home video industry in the eighties. Prior to that you saw movies in theaters and caught shows when they aired and that was usually it. There would be the occasional release or revival at a local theater, and one round of reruns on TV, then you’d move on.

The VCR created two opportunities that didn’t previously exist: libraries and timeshifting.

The library concept has moved from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray without changing significantly other than the occasinal upgrade cycle creating new revenue surges (less so with Blu-ray).

Timeshifting has similarly had a number of phases. The first VCRs had clunky analog dials, just like the TVs at the time, that could only be on one channel at a time and a single timer unaware of days or dates, just time, like an alarm clock. Then the equipment got a little smarter and you could program the time and channel and the magic device would do it all at the appointed time. Amazing!

The interface for all this was often inscrutable blinking lights on the box itself, only later did it move to an interface you saw on the TV screen so you didn’t have to hunch over the device poking at buttons.

VCR-plus came along and let you enter in a few numbers (found in your printed TV Guide, remember those?) to make it a little easier.

But up until the DVR you still had the limits of recording one thing at a time, you had to cue up the tape yourself and make sure there was enough time left. You also couldn’t record while watching another recorded show let alone watch the beginning of a show while the end was still recording.

The DVR changed that. Now you can pick shows by their name, not obscure codes or complex date and time selections. You have access to metadata about the show that includes actors names or key words so you can find things more easily, the system can make recommendations, and you can watch while you are recording. Incredible! Right?

Not really, it’s just the same timeshifting concept evolved to its next logical point. It’s just a fancy VCR.

You still, even with a DVR, have these quaint analog artifacts:

  • Shows start and end at inexact times, so your recording may begin partway into an advertisement before the show starts, or you may cut off the end (particularly with live events)
  • The schedule may have changed and instead of the latest episode of FlashForward you actually get a press conference from the White House.
  • You can still only record a limited number of things at the same time, on most systems it’s two, some go to four, so it’s possible some things will not be available to you at a particular time.
  • You still have to manage the media on which it is recorded. Your system can still fill to capacity, particularly if you are a collector.

You are still setting a timer on a recording device and waiting for the linear broadcast to deliver the content. This is an inherently analog system.

It’s like trying to acquire baseballs by standing in the outfield and waiting for one to be hit to you, then running to catch it. Why not just go to the store and get a baseball off the shelf?

The 20th century model was broadcasts happen when they happen according to the holy “scheduling grid” and for the last thirty years we’ve just rigged up increasing advanced clocks and timers to capture them. The 21st century model is on-demand, and your library is where ever you are. The show starts exactly at the top without any slip in timing or partial cutoff.

Now you probably have this already in some form, but it’s not the primary method for most. Eventually, I believe, it will be not only the primary way, but the only way.

I’ll give it twenty years, say 2030, when there will be an act of congress to make it official. There will be coupons handed out to the remaining stragglers still running the old hardware (just like we saw with the DTV cutover) and a date will be set when the old broadcasts can simply be shut off.

Once there is 100% compliance, we can finally do away with the onerous and outmoded concept of the “time slot.”

No longer will you describe a show as being “on Friday night at 8pm” or “up against American Idol” or “following your late local news.” We’ll no longer call it “timeshifting” because there won’t be an assumed original time to shift from.

There will be packaging of shows surely, so having a “good lead in” will still be a way to introduce new shows to existing audiences, but there will be an infinite number of ways to package or target those audiences. Packaging will also be performed by third parties, recommending and selling bundles of content from different suppliers.

A show will not be limited to a thirty or sixty minute format, but can be as long as the producers need to tell the story they’re telling. This week it’s thirty, but next week it’s twenty three, the week after that it’s forty two.

Shows won’t have to be weekly. A series may be released in ten minute episodes daily, or spaced out every thirty days, or an episode can be held for a few days while the editing is completed.

Multi-hour story arcs (we currently call them “seasons”) can be consumed in whatever portions the viewer decides, and released in whatever packaging the producer wishes.

No more requirement to program exactly twenty four hours on each of the channels a programmer owns. No need to fill time with junk, and no limit on the amount of time available when deciding what to green light. Some networks (by this time really brands more than channels) will offer a hundred new hours of programming in a day, while others offer only a few new hours per week.

Television may adopt a scheduling practice that borrows some from the music and movie businesses where work is scheduled for release based on its nature, not the tyranny of a calendar.

This is already happening to some extent on the web, and some networks are more flexible with hiatuses or mini-seasons, but this won’t be fully realized until the concept of linear programming based on a calendar grid is history.

So the DVR, as cool as it is, is little more than the latest, most advanced kludge we have to manage a totally outdated system that is on its way out.

Set your timers.

  1. May 7, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Some interesting thoughts, Mike, but maybe a bit Utopian. Cue the piano: Imagine there’s no TiVo. It isn’t hard to do. No golf running late and cutting off Amazing Race. No commercials, too.

    As a longtime DVR zealot since before Tivo and UltimateTV were readily available (had the original Dishplayer), I think you are undervaluing the product. I’ve often told people that the DVR has been, for me at least, the single most important, most life changing tech product of my lifetime. You give short shrift to some DVR features which make the product more than just the incremental step up from VCRs that you claim.

    First, the ability to pause live television and to start watching a show while it’s still recording revolutionized the medium, at least for me. I’m not sure I could have survived the “baby years” without the DVR. Second, picture quality . . . especially when the DVR is integrated within the cable/sat receiver. Recording without any video degradation is a godsend. Finally, the 15- second skip button completely changed the way I view sports. I almost never watch live anymore. Being able to skip past huddles and through stoppages in play is well-worth having to walk around with my fingers in my ears trying desperately to avoid having someone mention the score of that day’s game.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have two Apple TVs in my house, have played around with Roku and will be purchasing the Boxee Box as soon as its available. I agree that TV on demand is the future. But I’m not sure that the benefits will ultimately outweigh the negatives. The end of television’s ‘watercooler era’ saddens me. With the popularity of the DVR, it’s getting increasingly difficult to talk with friends, family and co-workers about the latest episodes of our favorite shows. Too often, the response I get is “Hold it! I’m three episodes behind. Wait until I catch up on my Tivo.” When content is delivered entirely on demand, the days of television being a communal experience will be lost forever. There certainly will never be another Lucy giving birth to Little Ricky, Who Shot J.R. or Mash finale.

    And then there are the networks and their inclination to treat every technological advance as merely a new way to gauge customers and further control their viewing habits. Not only is Hulu moving toward a subscription model, but they apparently intend to gradually increase the number of ads from six per hour to 24 every 45 minutes! The networks will do everything they can to prevent 15 second skip buttons and other hacks. Can you imagine what we’ll have to put up with in the coming years? 25 minutes of ads an hour. 30 minutes. Pre-roll ads. Post-roll ads. On-screen links. More and more product placement.

    I think you may soon find that you miss your TiVo and its FF button more than you could have ever imagined.


    • May 22, 2010 at 6:46 pm

      Dave, thanks for the great reply.

      DVR functionality (pause, rewind, etc.) will certainly remain present in the new on demand style access. (Although as it is now with Netflix and others there’s a delay while the stream rebuffers. That should be improved in the future.)

      MLB.tv has some great features that let you watch games (commercial free) the way you want, including masking scores from you so it doesn’t get spoiled.

      The water cooler era as you put it is over, but new kinds of social viewing are appearing. Facebook is now the watercooler. And Facebook (or things like it) will soon be commonly available if you want it during the show, either on the TV itself or on a tablet or other device near by. No need to wait till the next day or be limited to just the people you happen to work with to discuss it. This is the way of things. The kids today (I love saying that) have totally different expectations around media consumption than we did. They will define their own new ways to socially consume and discuss. (and companies like mine and me in my job will help, hopefully)

      As to the “ad load” as we call it, yes the free ride may be ending. But think about this (and note, I do not work for ABC, ESPN, or the Disney Channel, but at the Disney Interactive Media Group I do work on projects involving online video and advertising, so I am one of the *they* you refer to… though I am not speaking for Disney here…)… if you “cut the cord” and don’t pay for cable or satellite, and you watch video online where there are only minimal ads, who is paying for what you watch? You’re getting a free lunch because you’re an early adopter. If you’re the one out of every say ten thousand who does it, it probably doesn’t matter, you’re being subsidized by the masses who are doing it the traditional way. But if everyone does it, there’ll be no money left in the system to pay for shows to be produced in the first place. All you’ll have is cheap reality shows.

      What you’ll have to put up with in coming years is not a 50% unskippable ad load (I hope) but ads that are eerily targeted to you. They may include your name, awareness of the products you already use, where you drove recently (using your net enabled navigation device), etc. An ad like that will be worth far more to an advertiser and may allow you to see fewer ads of higher value than sit through a higher ad load that means nothing to you.

      If you don’t like that, you may have the option to pay a couple bucks to watch the show commercial free. Either way, the $100 or so you pay a month for TV now will still be about $100 in the future, it just may be paid to someone else, or traded for privacy. And good or bad, those kids today are not growing up putting a lot of value on their own privacy. This is where we’re going.

      Putting things in perspective, television is only about sixty years old, so you and I have been watching it for about half its history. It shouldn’t be surprising that it continues to evolve. Sixty years from now I’d expect it to be unrecognizable to us today.

  2. May 12, 2010 at 11:21 am

    Love it! had no idea 🙂

  3. demodave
    June 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Dave and Mike,

    Generally, I think it’s all good and brilliant. Really enjoyed the read.

    I look forward to truly “on-demand” content. My own HGTV “Real Estate Interventions” or “My Big Fat Renovation Nightmare” schedule to match my needs.

    I can totally relate, though, to the issue of missing half of “The Amazing Race” because golf went long. Or because there was snow on my dish. And I don’t even dislike golf (or snow, for that matter)!

    I have, however, been, in my personal experience, totally disappointed by the Dish end of the AT&T-Dish relationship. I have been so bitterly disappointed that I am willing to post this disparaging commentary on Dish. I will send them their damn DVR back only to avoid paying for it. Otherwise, I’d stomp on it and sends its broken sorry ass back to them on their very own postage-paid nickel. F* ’em.


    • June 5, 2010 at 12:13 pm

      Demodave. Sorry to hear of your troubles. Just to clarify, I’m not taking a swipe at any one company’s implementation of a DVR, but at the basic underlying concept they all share. Your future on demand systems will have glitches too. 🙂

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