TiVo Masters the Challenge of Free-To-Air

[Guest post by a former Brainmate Nick Richards in 2009.]

This week I celebrate my 6-month anniversary of TiVo. I took the plunge in February and forked out way too many dollars for a black box with a curious ability to learn what I like to watch.

TiVo has changed my life for the better. I now watch more television, but more importantly, I only watch quality television. Gone are the days when I would sit down at 9.30 on a Tuesday night just to see what’s on, which invariably was nothing of interest. Now, with the help of TiVo’s Now Playing button, I can bring up a list of all my favourite shows, documentaries and movies that have recorded over the past week. And what you wouldn’t realise is that there are actually a lot of good programs on free-to-air TV. With the recent launch of Channel Nine’s Go! Channel, there are no less than 15 free-to-air channels to choose from. And with the TiVo electronic program guide you have access to shows that were previously impossible to watch because of your schedule.

Want to see that Planet Earth documentary, but don’t want to watch it at 6.30pm because you will be in the midst of dinner-making chaos? Why not record it, and watch it at 10 when the kids are asleep and you can really appreciate it? Do you have a busy night, but can’t miss Packed to the Rafters in case someone spoils it at work tomorrow. Simply start watching it 20 minutes late and skip the ads – now that is time-efficient.

Another well-publicised feature of a DVR (digital video recorder) like TiVo is the ability to pause and rewind live television. I thought this was a gimmick until, when watching the cricket, I had an epiphany. While momentarily distracted I missed a crucial wicket, a classic catch, and as the commentators cheered I thought, “damn I wish I’d seen that”. The slow-motion replays are never the same as seeing things unfold live. Then I discovered the TiVo Instant Replay button and was instantly transported back 8 seconds into the past to watch the wicket happen in real-time.

But any DVR can do this, so what makes TiVo so special?

One of TiVo’s more interesting features is its Suggestions. This is when TiVo records programs of its own accord to fill the space on the hard drive. It will never record over a show that you request, and these Suggestions are always the first to go to make more space. Over time, TiVo even learns what you like to watch, and the suggestions become more and more relevant. In the spirit of the Colosseum you can rate every program with ‘thumbs’ turned up or down. Give a program three thumbs up and TiVo will regularly record it, while a single thumbs down ensures that a program will never be recorded again. TiVo then uses your preferences to find other programs you might like. For example, if you liked CSI it may record Criminal Minds for you. And if you enjoyed the first Harry Potter movie, TiVo will record the sequel even if you missed it in the TV guide.

Another feature I found handy is Remote Scheduling. I was out and about one Wednesday and discovered The Chaser was returning to television that night. After cursing myself for not reading the TV guide I remembered Remote Scheduling, so logged on to TiVo’s website and sure enough, the episode was waiting for me when I got home. I have even told TiVo to record a movie for me while on holiday in Thailand!

A hallmark feature of TiVo is Season Passes. These enable you to record every occurrence of a program even when the TV schedule changes. It also lets you record programs based on an actor you like, a preferred genre, or even a keyword. My wife discovered the power of this recently when she selected the keyword ‘babies’. Hold on a minute, what is she planning…? Anyway, TiVo came back with recorded episodes of Little Angels, The Baby Borrowers, Plumpton Babies and Jon and Kate Plus 8, all of which I am told are parenting shows of exceptional quality.

My defining TiVo moment came in the exciting final week of Masterchef Australia. With Masterchef on Channel 10 six nights a week it had already posed a significant challenge to my TiVo’s recording ability, but I had still managed to record and watch every single episode. But during that last week I was out more often than not, and developed a backlog of four episodes. This required me to watch at least two episodes each night in order to catch up in time for the finale, as there was no way I could watch that the day after without learning the result. With TiVo by my side I prevailed, and learned to not mess with century eggs and leave tempered chocolate to the experts.