CHOICE guide to electronic program guides

What’s an electronic program guide (EPG) and do you need one?
 
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01 .Introduction

Please note: this information was current as of August 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


What's an EPG?

An electronic program guide (EPG) is just a TV guide by another name. It's different because it isn't on paper. It comes direct to your TV, rather than you having to go out and buy it. More than that, it's a useful tool for planning and organising your TV watching. Used with a PVR, it can free you from the broadcaster's schedule and allow you to watch what you like when you like. See our 2010 review of current EPGs.

Two types of EPG

  • If you've already switched over to digital TV, you're probably already aware of the limited guides available for each channel when you press the 'Guide' button on your remote control. These EPGs are supplied free, but aren't always complete. Currently, all networks except SBS are providing seven days of information. SBS limits its information to what's on now and coming next, but this could change in the future.
  • The other type of EPG is tied to a product you have to pay for, such as Foxtel, IceTV or TiVo. The main advantage of these EPGs is that they provide more detailed program descriptions, may be more accurate (see Legal battle) and have other services such as programming a recording based on a keyword, or setting up a recording via the internet.

EPG 

Why are they better than paper?

Paper guides have served us well for a long time, but in an increasingly digital world they have two major failings:

As the number of channels increases and consequently the amount of programs available grows, paper listings start to get very cluttered. Space on the page is limited and program synopses get squeezed, which can reduce their usefulness.

Paper guides don't make it any easier to program your digital (hard disc) recorder (aka personal video recorder, PVR). An EPG does. It's as simple as putting the cursor over a program and pressing the record button - no need to access timer settings or fiddle about with complicated menus. See What can an EPG do? for more.

What's TiVo?

TiVo  is a digital recorder (PVR) that's available in Australia via an agreement with Channel 7. This doesn't limit it to any particular channels' broadcasts, but Channel 7 obviously sees it as a future profitable product. It requires a broadband internet connection as well as a normal TV aerial to work, but unlike TiVo in the US there's no ongoing subscription cost. However, at the launch of TiVo there was a clear indication that extra functions and services may well come at a cost.

TiVo will learn your preferences and record any program that fits your normal viewing habits. The EPG for TiVo is sent to it via the internet connection and has more detail than the broadcast EPG.

CHOICE hopes to see competitors for TiVo in the near future. IceTV is keen to be a player in supplying its product to PVR and media PC manufacturers that want to compete, and there may be others in the future if the copyright issues can be resolved (see Legal battle).

Foxtel has a similar product called IQ for an extra cost on top of the normal Foxtel subscription.

 
 

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At the simplest level a free-to-air EPG delivers information about the time and date of a program, its name, classification rating and whether it's a repeat or new. Usually there's a brief synopsis of the plot and a list of the major actors or presenters.

This information is sent to your PVR along with program data as part of the digital data stream that makes up the digital channel. When you press the 'Guide' or 'EPG' button on your remote, the PVR updates and displays the information on your screen for the channel you're currently watching. Most PVRs leave a window that displays the program currently playing so you don't miss anything.

More sophisticated PVRs can display more than one channel's data at a time, but we have yet to see one other than TiVo (see Did you know?) that will update the data in the EPG without changing channels. EPGs that you subscribe to, such as Foxtel IQ or IceTV, enable features like this as well as adding other functions and information.

Whether the EPG is free or paid for, setting up a recording is usually a matter of pressing the record button with the program you want highlighted. The better PVRs will even prompt you to set it to record just once, weekly or at a given interval. At the very sophisticated level, products like TiVo will record every instance of a particular program regardless of when it's broadcast, or every program with a particular actor, director or of a genre.

How do I get an EPG?

All you need to see the free-to-air EPGs is a newish PVR with a digital tuner. Some older PVRs have trouble with EPGs, but newer ones should display the data and allow you to select what you want to record.

If you have a set-top box without a recording function, you might be able to see the EPG, but that's all. The recording function is built into the PVR's operating system. Also, the networks supply the data for the EPG, but they don't determine how it looks on your screen. The design for displaying the information is determined by the PVR or set-top box manufacturer and it's likely that some will do a better job than others. If you're considering buying a PVR, ask the store to let you see the EPG before you take it home.

For the more technically minded, a media PC includes a PVR function and will also display EPGs, but may be restricted in some of its more sophisticated functions by the limited information provided by the free-to-air EPGs currently available.

There are currently only three options if you want to buy an EPG. With the first two options the EPG comes with the PVR —TiVo and Foxtel IQ. The former can be purchased outright for $699 from Harvey Norman and Domayne stores and the latter is available from Foxtel for about $35.95 a month on a yearly subscription.

The third option is IceTV’s EPG which you purchase directly from IceTV for about $8.25 per month on a yearly subscription. However, only some PVRs and media centre PCs are compatible.

Each television network puts together a schedule of programs for its own use. It also creates its own EPG, which is broadcast via its digital channel.

A separate company called HWW, owned by Ninemsn, aggregates the data from all the channels and sells the information on to companies that want to publish a complete TV guide and charge you for it. The networks retain their rights over the data they compile, but agree to this onselling.

In addition, companies such as IceTV compile their own information on TV programming based on what's broadcast and advertised to be broadcast. This isn't always accurate, and they have to be very careful not to infringe copyright (see Legal battle). Again, IceTV will charge you for its guide, but says the additional information and features provided make it worthwhile.

Are EPGs always accurate?

Accuracy is always a problem because networks make changes to schedules at the last moment. EPGs can't predict this, so many PVRs have the means to make allowance for some of the changes, by adding some padding to the times you set for recordings.

Legal battle over copyright

There’s money in schedules. Channel Nine took IceTV to court and won an injunction to stop them selling an EPG that Nine claimed infringed its copyright, even though IceTV wrote all the program descriptions itself.

According to the court, IceTV checking the accuracy of its timings against already published information led to an infringement of Nine’s copyright. IceTV eventually won its case, but it’s clear the networks see EPGs as a potential revenue stream.

In print, advertising is the major form of funding and you can bet there’ll be advertising close on the heels of any electronic form of TV guide. Channel 7 let slip in its launch of the TiVo PVR that there’ll be the potential for banner advertising alongside program listings.

EPGs should be freely available

An independent group called MyEPG recently began lobbying the government to make sure an EPG is available to everyone. It argues the current offering is incomplete or inaccurate and that Australia should follow other countries’ example in making the provision of an EPG part of the licensing provisions for free-to-air broadcasters.

CHOICE agrees that consumers should be provided with accurate information to enable them to determine what they watch and when. It’s also in the interests of the government, which is keen to see digital TV gain wide acceptance. A freely available and accurate EPG will increase competition in the market for fully functional PVRs and associated services that have the potential to improve consumers’ TV watching experience.

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