When is a TV program the same ?

We’ve recently hit a problem based around a lack of clarity around the “equivalence” of assets. For people in the broadcast industry, this is an old chestnut, but I think it’s worth exploring here.

Lets say you have a program, for the sake of argument: “Vertical City” (1st Episode). Let us also assume it has a total of 6 episodes. (For those with Deja-Vu, it is a real program on Channel 4, but I’m just using this as an example).

Let us also suppose (this is not the case as far as I know) ZDF buys this series, as does NED1, and then RTE.

Let’s introduce a viewer, Bob, who has decided that he wants to watch the entire series. He gets all these broadcaster/channels: RTE, NED1, ZDF, and C4 but he’s come late to the party and C4 is at episode 4 (I’m ignoring the iPlayer/4oD part here :)).  Now if you had a Tivo, and told it to get the whole series, it would make this assumption:

A program is the same regardless of channel

So it could reconstruct the series as follows:

  • Ep1 – from RTE
  • Ep2 – from RTE
  • Ep3 – from ZDF
  • Ep4 – from NED1
  • Ep5 – from C4
  • Ep6 – from C4

And that’s the same as the original series on C4 ? Isn’t it ?


If you did this, you’d probably find that NED1 burns subtitles in (it’s a Dutch channel), ZDF might dub the program so the sound track is now German, and RTE might burn a graphic into the program.

The point is that the original asset produced (in this case by Electric Sky) by the program maker is the only part that you can make any assertion of equivalence on. This is how a broadcaster like the BBC can say that an asset they buy to put out on BBC1 is the same as the instance they put out on BBC3 a week later/earlier. Once it’s is on the channel and consumed, it is a different program, even if the viewer might say its a equivalent. BBC3 has the channel logo for instance, the time of showing might be different.

This difference is even more marked in a multi-language environment because of the differing audio/video tracks.

From the point of view of a Broadcast Network owner, such as UPC or Sky, this is frustrating, because you cannot assume equivalence, so each program is different unless the channel operator tells you explicitly that they are equivalent. This affects your approach to PVRs, network PVR, and meta-data. Essentially only the people who fed the tape into the ingest at the transmission stage can tell you if the program is the same.

From an architectural stand-point, this is something to watch where a development view will tell you that there is multiple copies of the same data in the system, even though the “copies” are actually different based on the business rules.

Just because you can run a string ‘==’ on the data with a result of ‘true’, doesn’t make it the same.


4 responses to “When is a TV program the same ?

  1. I think you’re missing the point, Francis 😉

    The user just doesn’t care about abstracted arguments of equivalence; the user wants the series reconstructed as best it can be. The user wants the TiVo experience!

    The PVR should try to reconstruct a series while keeping the various attributes (channel, definition, audio) as similar possible across the recording set, but I would expect them to be very annoyed at not being given an approximation when one was available.

    At the very least, shouldn’t the product ‘supplied’ (via STB recording functionality) be on the side of the user?

    • You must be getting bored on Sunday nights 🙂

      I agree the user doesn’t give a toss about how or why programs are or are not equivalents, they just care about the PVR recording the “right” thing, when asked to.

      We still then have to answer the question of how does the PVR do that ? And the answer is in the meta-data. TiVo manages it by consolidating all the data feeds in one, which means that a human somewhere has made some equivalence. If not a human, then you are in the realms of “fuzzy” logic, and that can only work on something it can ascribe meaning to, so most likely only the textual fields in the meta-data. (I’m going to assume people aren’t comparing macro-blocks in the MPEG stream…)

      The STB has no intelligence when it comes to audio or video, how can it tell which language is present or selected as a default ? It could look at the language descriptors… if they are present, and they are often defined by the network, so how does the listings provider know which is which ? There are other use-cases as well, how about programs that move and then conflict with other recordings ? Without proper description the STB can’t do a thing. In the general view of a broadcast network, the STB is actually the dumbest part of the system.

      In terms of the STB being on the side of the user ? I think you have the issue of what the consumer “wants” with what the broadcasters/network provide. It’s been a goal of a lot of people in the industry to have a full meta-data data flow from the camera to the consumer, and that would make this a all a lot easier. The downside for the channels/networks is that it would mean that the thing you want to “buy” on the network is just the program, not the channel, much in the same way that iTunes means you don’t need to buy the album, you can just get the track. In a multi-channel world however, the best way to promote your channel is to provide more information and by shifting more programs, get people to rely on that channel as a source of “good” programming.

      You could argue and I’d agree that a bit of forward planning with a reasonable EPG allows you to do this anyway, and currently the series data on Freeview (UK only) is doing most of what I want including tracking program time changes and so on. This is partly because the STB providers and network owners are separate, and it’s in the channel providers interest to provide better meta-data in order to stand out.

      Ultimately, if you want the STB (or mobile phone as another example) to be on your side, then the network shouldn’t provide it.

  2. Hugo le Petite

    You raise some very interesting points. However, how can I take it seriously when you use the American spelling of programme? 😛

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