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.
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