EPG review

Electronic program guides (EPGs) are supposed to help Australians record their weekly TV fix, but how reliable are they?
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01.EPG: Electronic program guesswork?


Timetables are like time machines – they let us see into the future and plan our lives accordingly. But like the hero of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, who was never sure what would happen when he threw the lever on his contraption, our lives can go awry when the timetable isn’t accurate.
So it is with electronic program guides (EPGs), the on-screen timetables for our TVs. Recording 36 programs from the five major networks over a two-week period, CHOICE tested EPGs from:

Using the paper guide provided in the Sydney Morning Herald as our starting point, we chose a variety of programs and times to get as broad a spread as possible. Unfortunately, all EPGs tested missed some of the beginning and/or end of programs recorded, often by exactly the same amount. The free-to-air EPG, however, completely missed information on three programs and was often the last to be updated with information.

Although our sample size is small and limited to only two weeks, it confirms what many would consider common knowledge – that relying on an EPG to record your TV programs is going to end in frustration. According to our test, you will miss about 25% of beginnings, ranging from a minute or two up to seven minutes. Worse still, approximately 33% of our recordings were missing their ends. The worst case had 10 minutes cut off the end, but of the rest half had been cut short by more than six minutes – a lot more footage than just the closing credits.

We also looked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) reports on the networks’ performance regarding EPGs, and found that while the testing periods and methodologies were different, the results are similar. ACMA is working with the industry on a standard that has the potential to improve the accuracy of some parts of the EPG, but until it's in place we’re stuck with the current inaccuracies.

How an EPG gets to the screen

TV networks plan their programs many months in advance. However, they may add or delete some programs quite late, depending on negotiations for broadcast rights. Each network’s programmer creates a document that is sent to an aggregator. These documents vary in format and detail, and the aggregator compiles them into a single data set and adds certain details such as parental guidance ratings, series links, cast lists and even program descriptions where necessary. This data is then sent back to the network in a form that's ready for display. The networks or other EPG providers, such as Foxtel and TiVo, decide how often they will update the information that’s broadcast. Our observations suggest this is done on a daily basis at least, but one aggregator we contacted suggested it can be done as often as every 15 minutes.

Digital TV is essentially just a stream of data. Each network has its own bandwidth – a range of frequency within which it can broadcast data. All the data for the network's many channels (such as ABC HD, ABC2 and ABC3) is sent to you via this bandwidth in one big clump of data, known as a multiplex. The data for each channel within the multiplex has specific markers that tell your digital video recorder (DVR), set-top box or TV on which channel it should be displayed.

The EPG data is broadcast to your DVR, set-top box or TV as part of the individual network’s multiplex, and is specific to that network. Your digital device has to split the EPG data out from the rest, then compile all the programming information for each network and each channel within that network and present the information for all the networks on a single screen. This is why it can sometimes take a while for the EPG to update when you switch to it. Some devices may even require you to switch to the channel you're interested in to get an update.

The quality of the information in the EPG is important, because a DVR relies on this information to determine program names and when they begin and end. Even the slightest change to a series name or other essential piece of information can mean a missed recording.

New and improved?

Freeview is the brand name/marketing term for the free-to-air television stations in Australia. It is working to provide an EPG that has its own data stream and which it claims will be much more accurate. It will make use of a new standard called MHEG5, which among other things will allow devices to recognise when a program has begun and ended. DVRs with a Freeview sticker currently don't support MHEG5, so if you want this new technology you'll have to buy a new DVR that has a Freeview EPG logo on it.

The restrictions that are currently in place with Freeview-labelled DVRs, such as no ad-skipping and limited copying, still apply and may even have things such as “overlay ads” included, which appear if you're fast forwarding through an ad break in a recording and can't be removed until you press 'PLAY'.

At this stage it’s unclear whether DVRs without the Freeview EPG sticker will be able to access an improved EPG, but until we can compare the performance of the Freeview EPG with the rest, we suggest steering clear of Freeview-labelled products unless they’re competitively priced (see www.choice.com.au/freeview for more).

What you can do

For now there's no guarantee your EPG’s information will be up to date, but most programs remain in each network’s schedule once the program manager has selected and scheduled them.
• Check any program you want to record on the EPG on the day it's scheduled. This should alert you to major changes (although as we’ve seen in our test there are no guarantees).
• When setting up a recording manually, make sure you begin the recording five minutes prior to the scheduled start time and add 20 minutes to the end time. This should ensure you capture the program in full.
• Most DVRs allow you to schedule a recording directly by highlighting the program in the EPG and pressing the record button. In many cases they will also let you set up “buffers”, which add a predetermined amount of extra time to the beginning and end of every recording. Use the "add five before – 20 minutes after" rule above in your DVR’s auto-setup to minimise losses.
• Some EPGs such as Foxtel, TiVo and IceTV allow you to reschedule or set up recordings via the internet or even an iPhone app – look for details on the relevant websites.

How we test

Once we’ve determined the programs to be recorded, our tester, Scott O’Keefe, programs a digital video recorder (DVR) for each of the EPGs. Each recording is set using only the EPG, without any padding at the beginning or end. A separate DVR is set to record each program with plenty of padding, to make sure we record the entire program and can determine when the program actually begins and ends. All the DVRs have their clocks set to the correct time.

Once the recordings are complete, Scott checks to see if any program or part of a program has been lost and notes by how much time the recording is out. He also copies the descriptions and other data that are displayed, such as the program’s classification and whether it has closed captions and/or is a repeat.



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