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DVRs still suck

May 5, 2010 5 comments

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.

(Wikipedia)

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.