Fragments of an informal History of Broadcasting
The occult art of Video Recording
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Domestic video recording (digital)
1999 saw the beginning of two systems which would displace video tape recording. DVDs - CD-sized disks which could contain an entire film in high quality - were already becoming popular as a replacement for rented or bought videocassettes: now with the advent of recordable DVDs it became possible to make machines which could record directly onto them. The method could handle an hour at top quality, or more if you were prepared to accept reduced quality: the disks could be either record-once, or could be wiped (originally in their entirety, not partially) for re-use. DVD recorderAs so often there were two competing formats, DVD-R and DVD+R. Early machines often combined the recorder with a VHS mechanism; later machines replaced this with the other major development, a hard disk recorder.

Hard disks had of course been in use in computers for some years, providing large amounts of storage, and, importantly, immediate access to any part of it. Video could be converted to a digital format, and so could be stored on a hard disk (and for broadcasters provided an easy method of editing).

TivoThe first consumer product to make use of this technique was 'Tivo' (left), first available in 1999. It could record analogue transmissions, digitizing them to store them on an internal hard disk; rather than program it manually you could download a programme listing at intervals over a phone line, and choose programmes to record from a list - the 'programme guide'. The machine could also use information included with the list to record programmes it thought you would like, based on your previous viewing habits.

Hard disk recording of video is convenient because you don't have to rewind it, nor locate the tape it's on in order to play it (people were always losing tapes, or recording over them by accident): you selected your programme from a list. Obviously this method was suitable for watching a programme at a later time (the expression 'time-shifting' didn't catch on until later) but not for keeping programmes permanently, since if you did that your hard disk would soon fill up.

Tivo aquired a small but enthusiastic fan base, but was ahead of its time, and most people were having enough difficulty understanding video recorders - it was fairly popular in the USA but never really caught on in the UK and eventually disappeared (though the technology has returned in Virgin Cable TV's new PVR).

'tower'JVC produced a combined S-VHS and hard disk recorder, the HM-HDS4, (top of the 'tower', right), which could record from its own analogue tuner or through SCART sockets from an external analogue source; programming had to be done manually. The 40GB hard disk could hold 20 hours of high-quality video (or 6 hours of DV at very high quality video) or you could extend to 28, 56 or 80 hours by accepting a reduction in quality (though the 8o-hour version was equivalent  to not very good VHS).

However the real value of hard disk recorders, by now called 'PVRs' (Personal Video Recorders) came with digital TV broadcasts. When Sky's analogue satellite service converted to digital (which takes up less bandwidth and so allows many more channels) they developed their 'Sky+' recorder (third down in the 'tower', right). Equipped initially with a 40GB hard disk, expanded for later versions, it recorded the digital signal directly onto the disk, decoding it on playback: this meant that the played-back picture was exactly the same quality as the original transmission.

EPGProgramming was done by using information transmitted by the satellite and displayed by the box as an 'EPG' (Electronic Programme Guide) (left). All you had to do was select your programme using the left/right/up/down buttons on your remote control, press the record button, and it would be recorded and available from a list for you to play back. You could watch one programme and record one on a different channel, or record two programmes at once. You could be recording a programme and start watching it while it was still being recorded. Again, it was only really suitable for time-shifting, but as this was the principal use for video recorders it provided a much improved way of doing this. Take-up was initially slow, partly because all Sky's programming requires a subscription, but it now has a very large user base.

A competitor to Sky came in the form of 'Digital Terrestrial Television' (DTT), broadcasting groups of stations on frequencies in the same band as analogue TV transmissions. Initially marketed as 'ONdigital' and later 'ITV Digital', and requiring a subscription for all but the basic five analogue channels, it failed as a business model in 2002 and was replaced by 'Freeview', a consortium providing a selection of free-to-air channels (a few pay channels were added later by other companies).

Pace TwinThe following year satellite receiver firm Pace produced the first Freeview PVR, the 'Twin' (right), so called because it had two tuners, meaning that as with Sky+ you could watch one channel and record another. The quality, again was as broadcast (which was variable but could be extremely good): the 20GB held 10 hours of programmes. It did suffer from several bugs - picture freezing and jumping, and occasionally crashing - which were later improved but never entirely ironed out before Pace withdrew it, and 10 hours isn't really very much storage; but it did set the standard for the range of PVRs which came after it.

One of the most successful was the Humax range (the 9200T is at the bottom of the 'tower', above): hard disk space was increased to 80GB and in later standard-definition models up to a massive 320GB - 160 hours. Panasonic and other firms have produced combined hard disk and recordable DVD models with Freeview tuners - the hard disk for time-shifting, which you can copy to DVD if you want to keep the programme.

The PVR has all but replaced tape: very few VCRs are now available and a less-technophobic public has embraced the system with its high flexibility and easy use. Advertisers suddenly woke up to the fact that it was easy to skip the commercials and tried demanding to have the scan speed reduced (one US senator attempted to get skipping the adverts declared illegal) - though of course people had already been doing this with VCRs for 25 years!

The latest development is High Definition Television - vastly improved picture quality available on Blu-Ray disks, and on satellite: Sky updated its Sky+ to record the increasing number of HD channels it provided (and of course High Definition can only be recorded on a hard disk - at least until Blu-Ray recorders become readily available) and the Freeview concept was extended to 'Freesat' - free-to air satellite stations including some High-Definition channels. High-Definition DTT (Freeview) has also become available, albeit with only a few channels because of the limited bandwidth available, together with PVRs to record it (the extra space needed has led to the use of disks up to 2 terabytes); and following the success of 3-D in the cinema (stunningly achieved with Avatar) the first generation of 3-D televisions is now available (with satellite transmissions available from Sky), though the technology hasn't even begun to settle down yet: there are competing methods of achieving the effect, relatively little to watch, a tendency to produce 'ghosting' (faint extra images caused by one eye picking up information intended for the other eye), and still a requirement to wear (expensive) glasses which is likely to put a lot of prospective purchasers off (as are concerns which have been raised about induced nausea in some people, and possible damage to young childrens' eyesight).

The advent of easy home video recording, together with the larger number of channels now available (and the increasing availability of online viewings at your own choice of time), have had a considerable effect on the demograpics of television viewing. Though the audience is large, it is fragmented: the days when an episode of (for example) Quatermass could empty the pubs for half-an-hour, everyone saw it at the same time, and it was a major topic of conversation the next day, are long gone: viewing has become a much more individual experience.

It's all a long way from the black-and-white 14 inch live-only television I grew up with.

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