Use a PVR for More Efficient TV Watching

(This post was imported from an earlier blog. It was first published in 2007.)

We started using a personal video recorder (PVR, or DVR) a few years ago. It is no stretch to say that it has revolutionized how my family watches TV. We really like our Scientific Atlanta 8300HD PVR.

Before the PVR, we had specific shows we would watch regularly and try to work our evening schedule around. If we happened to miss an episode, too bad, so sad! We tried not to, but life happens. While I didn’t lack the know-how to set up the VCR to record a program, it felt like an annoyance and we mostly didn’t bother.

With the PVR, we seldom miss anything we like. It is easy to use the on-screen digital program guide, with show schedule data supplied automatically by our local cable company. When there is a show we want to record, we highlight it in the guide and select the record option. We can choose one episode, or set up a recurring program.

Not missing shows is what sold me on the PVR in the first place. In fact, we purchased it just for that reason in advance of a long vacation. What I didn’t realize before buying is that the PVR opens up a whole new way of watching TV.

Take, for instance, the ability to skip commercials: Before, we would suffer through them. Now, we can zip through and watch a one-hour show in 44 minutes. More signal, less noise. I was almost as impressed as when in the 1990’s I learned about using a kill-file when reading Usenet newsgroups. While the VCR could fast-forward, we seldom used the VCR in the first place. With the PVR, most of what we watch is recorded in advance.

Those time savings, I thought, would lead to a second major change: “This is great — now we can watch the same shows as before, but overall spend less time watching TV!” … Bah! Who was I fooling? By default, TV tends to fill available downtime, much like gas expands to fill its container. Some self-discipline is helpful. I’m working on this.

Yet, with this new approach, we also decided to record shows of higher quality, such as educational documentaries, interesting movies, news shows, etc. Many of these shows are broadcast at odd hours, times at which we wouldn’t have watched before. The PVR’s time-shifting has made them more accessible.

There are also shows I wouldn’t normally spend an hour watching and which I avoided entirely before. Now, I can record the show and watch just the particular segments of interest.

Fast-forward watching works particularly well with financial shows. I skip the parts about stocks/sectors/topics I’m not particularly interested in. I think this is why Mad Money has text at the bottom of the TV screen to display the current topic — so TiVo and PVR junkies can watch on high speed and still catch just the parts they want to watch. I also use the on-screen stock charts shown on BNN’s Market Call as cues to determine when to stop and listen about any companies I’m following.

Fast-forward watching also works great with technology call-in shows like The Lab with Leo Laporte, where I skip many of the novice call-in problems and focus instead on the special segments where there’s often something new to learn.

It’s also easy to just delete a show when it isn’t living up to its promise. If I had to go through the trouble to set up a VCR scheduled recording and also get a blank tape ready, I would feel more loss over the overhead time wasted.

Finally, it’s great to be able to sit down any time of day on any day of the week and always have something to watch. We seldom watch “live” TV any more. We sit down, press the List button, and find out what’s in stock. Can’t sleep at 4AM? Get up and visit Vienna with a travel show.

So, if you are on the fence about getting a PVR, consider the above points. You will make your television watching more efficient. Just make sure you don’t fill the extra time with too much fluff! If you have the discipline, you may even be able to reduce the amount of time spent watching TV. One of these days, we just might. I’m trying to swear off new shows. The ones I like keep getting cancelled on me!

Update: On a more technical note, when we finally upgraded to a high-definition TV set last summer, the 160GB internal hard drive that came with our Scientific Atlanta 8300HD started to fill up often. (We bought the HD version of the PVR before we even got a high-def TV or HD programming, since the 8300HD had twice the storage of the 8300 and a future-proof HD tuner.) The added pressure of needing to clear out the list started to irritate me. I eventually discovered how to add additional external storage to the 8300HD.