Personal Digital Video Recorders

Optimizing your consumption of broadcast television.

Over half of all American homes subscribe to cable television. In its initial form in the 1950s, cable television existed as a means of transmitting standard broadcast channels to areas that could not reliably receive broadcasts over the air. The cable market today is quite different, with many channels and shows not available over the air.

Television has been a core component of American life since the middle of the twentieth century. It helped launch some of the biggest music acts in history starting with Elvis and the Beatles, and it provided national unity as the country watched the Evening News on CBS. Just as families would gather around the radio in the past, families would now gather around their television to watch their favourite shows at the same time every night, all across the country.

The old Normal

We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry that is able to retrieve a surplus balance of trade and whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine. ... I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.
‐Jack Valenti, Motion Picture Association of America, at Congressional hearings

Mass-market success of the home video recorder—allowing for the recording and playback of broadcast television—started in the mid-1970s with famous competition between Sony's Betamax and the eventual winner, JVC's Video Home System (VHS). By 1980, teenagers were not only watching a lot of TV (27.3% of high school sophomores reported watching more than five hours a night), but they were also active in extracurricular activities. The VCR provided liberation from the rigid programming schedules by allowing families to record shows to watch when they were less busy (to timeshift the shows). Certain trade bodies did not like this, and told Congress that unless something were to be done about it, they would be run out of business.

What's Normal Now

The VHS videocassette and VCR still had 83.4% of the rental market (which still existed) in 2001. One of the reasons for the continued usage of VHS into the third millennia was that, unlike DVDs, it provided a means of recording at home. Even when the Motion Picture Association of America announced that its members would stop producing VHS versions of its films in 2006, many home owners continued to use VCRs to timeshift programs they could not (or did not want to watch) during their regular scheduling.

Early adopters had already moved on. TiVo and ReplayTV had already launched digital video recorders (or personal video recorders). MicroSoft followed by creating a version of its MicroSoft Windows operating system designed for home use in 2001, SageTV was formed in 2002 to market a cross-platform software DVR, and the open-source community created both Freevo and MythTV. By the end of 2003, cable companies began offering DVRs directly to their subscribers. By 2010, 38% of households with TVs used DVRs.

TiVo still has the largest brand mind-share of DVR hardware vendors, and sells devices both to end-users and through service providers. DVRs leased by providers, when not made by TiVo are often either from Scientific Atlanta (Cisco) or from Motorola. These devices were designed for users familiar with a VCR and its functionality, along with on-screen television guides that were common with satellite and advanced cable television access. They made it simpler to record shows than a VCR, integrating the schedule guide and making it unnecessary to change cassettes, but provided no further innovation.

DVRs in Japan during this time provided additional functionality to users to increase their television watching enjoyment. By monitoring secondary audio tracks, the DVRs were able to detect when a show broke for commercial and when it returned, skipping those segments when playing back previously recorded shows. Chances are, even today, the DVR you lease from your cable company won't skip commercials for you. Instead, the biggest advancements in these boxes are their ability to communicate with with the service provider to provide them with more accurate viewership ratings than traditional Nielson boxes.

What you can do

If your provider offers you a DVR with commercial-skipping functionality, and everything else you want, you should get it. That is, sadly, Quite Normal's advice to the masses. This is because of the restrictions on interoperating with the the television services and technology to read the signal sent by most television providers in the United States. Even if you have a computer that supports CableCards, it won't allow you to record certain shows unless you've bought an approved system. The television market in an equivalency to the pre-1968 telecommunications industry.

If, on the other hand, you don't live in the United States, or if you don't mind the occasional show you won't be able to record: you're quite welcome here. You have several free and open choices to choose from, although Freevo and MythTV were the original contenders. Myth has by-and-large won the battle for mind-share although many different projects exist to build upon it or provide customized interfaces. The easiest way to configure Myth if you have a dedicated computer for it, is to use a specialized distribution. I recommend MythBuntu as it tends to be be most up-to-date; but if you don't need additional hardware support, KnoppMyth may provide the better experience (MythDora is a third option). Any distribution for x86 or AMD64 will work, but it's easiest to use specialized distributions when they suit your needs.


The greatest thing about MythTV is that if your predilections are so inclined, you can build what you need on top of it. MythTV has a defined services API, but also an easy-to-use and easy-to-program against text based protocol which has given rise to many software remote controls, from feature phones running J2ME to Android tablets. The standard plug-ins even included a Web remote control that can work in an old WAP phone if necessary. This extendability means that even if you aren't interested in programming anything yourself, other people have already created additional plug-ins you might find useful and may not be found in other DVR systems.

Stripped-down, without plug-ins, MythTV is still a capable and powerful DVR system. While it provides a daunting level of customization, a user can leave all settings on their defaults until there is a desire to explore the extra features. While MythTV provides basic guides and program lists in order to find the shows you wish to record, it also contains some truly powerful options unavailable in most systems. Myth provides a rich set of rules allowing users to prioritize certain shows automatically both for recording and deletion, as well as specify different storage groups so that important shows always have reserved space.

With MythTV, you can specify that you want to keep the five most recent episodes of Sports Center, find and record any new episodes of The Mentalist, record any episode you don't already have recorded in seasons three through six of The Simpsons, and only if there's any free recorder, find any four out of five star film to record. With multiple people using the same DVR, you can even create multiple profiles so that each person has preferred access to certain tuners, preventing one person from hogging recording time. The only thing in this paragraph that the Motorola DVR my cable company leases is the ability to determine whether an episode is new or not. The Motorola DVR won't skip commercials, and can't export shows in a format that makes sense to copy on my phone or stream over the Web when I'm away from home, either.

What will be Normal

It's theft. Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots. Otherwise you couldn't get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a commercial or watch the button you're actually stealing the programming.
—Jamie Kellner, Time Warner

It's a sign of progress that we as residential users with our technology, the MPAA and its members have stopped seeing us as serial killers, but instead merely as conspirators in grand larceny. The technology available to end users will continue to improve, and the service providers will eventually bring that technology to the masses. It seems evident, however, that if home users want to be on the cutting edge, they'll need to use technology not provided by the main suppliers. Third-party services, and maybe even open-source developers trying to solve their own needs, may be the source of greatest innovation but will continue to be fighting hurdles enforced by the industry and special interests designed to retard progress.

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