Recording and Archiving TV Is Still Not Simple

We have Comcast cable TV with a digital tuner box that contains a hard drive to support video recording. When its hard drive filled up with shows we wanted to watch in the future, I had to figure out how to save them somewhere else to free up disk space for new recordings. As I pondered how to do it, I thought back a few decades and wondered why this process can still be cumbersome, given the improvements in technology….

In the 1970s, it became possible to record shows from your TV for viewing later, using a video cassette recorder (VCR). This is called time-shifting, and was ruled to be legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous 1984 “Betamax case”.

Doing this required learning how to program your VCR using its primitive interface and looking up show times on a printed TV schedule in a newspaper or TV Guide magazine. You could archive the shows you wanted to watch later by storing the video tapes.

In 1999, TiVo introduced a hard disk based digital video recorder (DVR), which downloaded the TV guide over a phone line or (later) the Internet. This let you choose shows to record by name; TiVo even records shows it thought you might like. For archiving, hobbyists figured out ways to get the recorded MPEG2 video files off of the TiVo’s hard drive and onto a home computer’s hard drive, where they could then be stored, viewed on a computer, burned onto DVDs, or converted into other formats such as MPEG4.

That was a great arrangement, but the TiVo boxes cost several hundred dollars plus a recurring subscription fee for the guides, and TiVo gradually made them harder to hack into to get the video files. The cable TV companies (like Comcast) started offering their own, simpler DVR boxes for cheaper (just the monthly fee). Our is made by Motorola. It has some computer connectors on the back, like Firewire, which aren’t enabled by the Comcast software on it.

So, how to copy shows off of the Comcast DVR? It’s ridiculous, but I have to record the shows in real-time into a computer. I got a Canopus ADVC-110 DV capture card that connects by Firewire to a Mac laptop running Final Cut Express, and by S-Video and RCA audio to the Comcast DVR. After I capture each show from the Comcast DVR into FCE, I trim out the commercials (replacing them with chapter markers), black out the in-frame ads for other shows with cropped slugs, de-letterbox by zooming if applicable, and save it as a QuickTime DV file that I can re-encode into MPEG2 for a DVD. There’s no good technical reason for these extra steps, just corporate politics.

I also use the Canopus to capture video from VHS tapes and analog camcorders, so I needed it anyway; I didn’t get it just to save shows from the DVR. Otherwise, I might have considered getting a TiVo and a CableCard. Other possible capture devices include:

  • A standalone DVD recorder to skip the re-encoding step, but that wouldn’t let me cleanly edit out commercials or re-encode for viewing on computers or portable devices.
  • For smaller captured file sizes, a capture device that encodes in MPEG4 instead of DV, such as the Elgato Video Capture. That would mean editing out the commercials using QuickTime Pro 7 or MPEG Streamclip, instead of Final Cut or iMovie. I find the Final Cut interface easiest to use and it gives me the most power in editing.
  • To capture HD, I’d have to use something with component video inputs like the Blackmagic Intensity Pro PCI-e card, but I don’t have a Mac with PCI-e slots near my TV. Or the Hauppauge HD PVR, which encodes in AVCHD format, which I would need to decompress to edit. And HD video uses even more disk space. Someone else has written up a procedure to convert HD video captured by a Hauppauge HD PVR into a standard-def DVD, for those who want to try that.

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