Tuesday, February 22

PVR without EPG is DOA

Foxtel's IQ set-top box will fail to set the world on fire, but to understand why, you need to become familiar with a TLA (Three Letter Acronym), and not the one you'd first expect. While the meeja is excited because the Foxtel IQ is a "PVR" (Personal Video Recorder), the TLA that really matters for this product is actually EPG (Electronic Program Guide).

It's the lack of a decent EPG that really kills it, not the exorbitant $395 cost, $100 setup fee and monthly $5.95 service fee.

You see, buy a PVR without an EPG and you've just paid $495 upfront and $70 a year for something with only slightly more functionality than a VHS VCR ("Video Home System", "Video Cassette Recorder") which would cost you about $150, plus maybe $50 in VHS tapes.

An EPG is an online version of your newspaper's printed television guide (minus the editorial guidance on what's good and what's not.) The more shows you have to choose from, and the more channels they screen on, the more value in an EPG. No more complex timer record setup, no more keying-in a six digit G-code from the printed guide, only to find later that the program didn't start on its scheduled time. You just browse through the EPG with the cursor keys on your PVR's remote, and select a program with the touch of a button. Whether the IQ can automatically record shows featuring your favourite stars is unclear, but it's possible - in the US your TiVo will do that, as well as automatically recommend shows to you based on your viewing tastes.

While an EPG's value increases in proportion to the volume of content available, the value of a PVR is also in direct proportion to the volume and depth of content in the accompanying EPG. The reverse is also true: if your EPG sucks, your PVR may as well be a lead ingot.

You'd think, with the combined smarts of Foxtel and its owners, Telstra, PBL and News Corp on-hand, that someone at Foxtel would understand that. Maybe someone there does, but they're not in charge, because sources close to the company tell me that the IQ's EPG only covers Foxtel's pay channels and PBL's Channel Nine free-to-air schedule.

In other words, if what you want to record and watch is on the 75% of free-to-air programming that isn't on Channel Nine (and that's arguably 90% of what's actually worth watching) then you better pickup the newspaper and get ready for recorder setup the old fashioned way with the rest of us pre-digital slobs.

Why? Because the other commercial channels own the copyright to their own TV programming schedule, and they won't license the rights to HWW (used to be an acronym for Horan Wall & Walker but now it's just the publishers of the Foxtel EPG). Why won't they license the rights so we can have a decent EPG? Because Foxtel is 25% owned by PBL, owner of Channel Nine, and deadly competitor to the other channels.

No (in case you're wondering if it's just you) it doesn't make sense: here's a company (HWW) that wants to market your products - encourage people to watch your programming by giving them an easy way to navigate it and optionally record it. The easier your programming is to find, the more people are going to watch it, right? And the more people watch it, the more your advertising is worth, right? All this is sacrificed in a petty, paranoid, pointless gesture, and as a side-effect, it leaves the Foxtel IQ, Australia's first commercial PVR, a still-born waste of launch budget.

There is an Australian TV enthusiast community busy building their own PVR systems, a whole spectrum from hackers cobbling them together out of xboxes and Linux PCs through to inventors and entrepeneurs hoping to become The Next Big Thing. And the single greatest missing ingredient is a great EPG. Without a broad and deep EPG, any PVR is DOA (Dead On Arrival).

You can't publish an EPG without the permission of the networks as copyright owners, and even if you're not affiliated with a competitor, the networks fear that your work will make it possible for PVR owners to skip ads and cut ad revenue.

Maybe there's a business in publishing a paid-subscription EPG in multiple formats for a broad range of Australian PVRs - there certainly seems to be pent-up demand. But without copyright owner permission, you'd have to base your business overseas, somewhere without a FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with Australia.

Hmm... kicking back on the beach in Malaysia or Indonesia, once in a while getting up to check on the progress of a sweatshop of underpaid locals busy keying-in the TV guide section of the Australian newspapers and the Foxtel print guide? Watching the online credit card payments grow? It sounds like a great life.

Meanwhile, the IQ is cheap as an alternative to a $1000+ HD (Hard Disk) recorder, but you don't get to own the device. It remains Foxtel's property, and when you stop paying for your Foxtel subscription, your recorded content is deleted and they take the IQ back. Unlike most HD recorders, it doesn't offer a way to record your programs permanently to external media, such as a DVD-R, so you don't get to keep the programs you've recorded (which would be illegal under Australia's antediluvian copyright law, but we all flaunt that anyway).

The only glimmer of hope in the whole mess is a mysterious USB port that's reportedly hiding in the back of the Foxtel IQ. What it's for remains a mystery, but maybe it's a way for hackers to output their digital video recordings to another device, or import a decent open-source EPG... stay tuned... or not...

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