When Program Guide Data Goes Astray

DVRs revolutionized TV by allowing everyday, non-gadget-oriented people to record shows by simply selecting them from an on-screen guide. You didn’t have to program start time, stop times, and channels by pressing tiny buttons located in the worst possible location of your VCR. Or enter arcane VCR+ codes. With your DVR, you browsed through the guide, found something interesting, and pressed select. Thanks to its program guide data, it knew when that show started and stopped, and which channel it was broadcast on. It even followed time slot changes if the broadcaster decided to shuffle its Sunday lineup.

But what happens if the program guide data goes astray?

When Program Guide Data Goes Astray

It happens from time to time. Perhaps you went to play the series premiere of The Orville that a certain program guide provider had erroneously listed as airing on Sunday, September 10 5:00 PM PDT on FOX  KTVUDT. You go to watch it, but wait – what’s this – Sports Wrap? A good thing that FOX aired the premiere again at 8:00. (And hopefully your ever-helpful DVR recorded both instances.)

One-off errors happen, perhaps because of last minute changes that couldn’t be propagated to PGD providers, or your DVR, in time. Or because the program guide data provider screwed up (as appears to have been the case in The Orville… at least one provider offset it by an hour, but others managed to get the correct time of 6:00 PM PDT). But it’s rare for a whole slate of shows to be wrong. Yet that’s what happened with SchedulesDirect’s feed for November 1.

The November Surprise

Those of you who get your program guide data via SchedulesDirect and recorded shows such as Chicago P.D. or SEAL TEAM may have noticed something odd: the guide showed a new episode was being broadcast, but what actually aired was a rerun. In the case of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, it was the season premiere that re-ran.  Disappointing to be sure, but at least you didn’t miss anything.

A week goes by. You go home thinking you’re going to finally get to see those new episodes, when a sense of horror grips you:  you have your DVR set to only record a show once if it repeats within a few weeks. And since your DVR thought it recorded that new episode last week… But much to your relief – and surprise – when you get home you see you now you have two recordings of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Unintended Consequences sitting on your DVR. But how can this be? Is your DVR really that in tune with you? Does it know that you’d throw a tantrum and sulk the entire evening if it hadn’t recorded that episode?

Program IDs

While your DVR may or may not really “get you,” in this case you can thank the good folks at SchedulesDirect (or their upstream provider Gracenote). They changed the program guide data so that although it seemed as if the same episode was recorded twice, from the program guide standpoint two different episodes got recorded.

To see how this worked out, let’s look at how your DVR thinks of shows. Although what you see in the program guide are recognizable series and episode titles like Seal Team: Tip of the Spear, your DVR knows that particular episode as EP026965520001. That’s the TMS ID (from the days when Gracenote was Tribune Media Services, or TMS). Every show has a unique ID. Think of it as something like a Social Security number for shows. Just as two people can have the same name but different Social Security numbers, two shows can have the exact same title but different IDs.

So what happened on November 1 and 8? Well for November 1 the new IDs were generated for the new episodes, which your DVR dutifully recorded. Then someone must have noticed that the program guide data hadn’t matched the actual broadcast. Instead of using those same IDs on November 8, a new set of IDs were generated.

In the case of SEAL Team: The Spinning Wheel, the November 1 ID was EP026965520006. But for November 8 the ID was EP026965520010. As it turns out these two IDs refer to programs that are part of the same series, have the same episode title, and have the same cast and crew. In fact they’re almost clones of each other. The only difference is that EP026965520006 doesn’t have an original air date associated with it. This makes sense since, well, it refers to a show that never really aired.

Despite that the two IDs are virtual twins, all your DVR knows is that the IDs are different. And so from its perspective, there’s yet another new episode of SEAL Team airing on November 8. Any logic in your DVR that would have prevented it from recording duplicate episodes was defeated. TiVo has the 28-day rule, which will prevent it from recording duplicate showings of a program within 28 days (unless you explicitly set up your Season Passes to record “everything”.) Many DVR solutions have similar options so your hard disk doesn’t get filled up with a dozen rebroadcasts of the same Simpsons episode.

While it would’ve been great if SchedulesDirect had managed to get the guide data correct on November 1, it’s nice to know that someone out there is looking out for us couch potatoes.