The Big Bang Theory.

The Big Bang Theory.

Network programmers are convinced they're doing a great job. Is it time to sack them?

The contempt with which Australian commercial television networks hold viewers is legendary, making it near impossible to keep track of your favourite shows each week. Yet the country's programmers actually rate themselves pretty high in terms of the accuracy of their Electronic Program Guide (EPG), according to TV Tonight. Seven and Ten's programmers rate themselves a perfect 10 out 10, while Nine rates itself a more modest 8 out of 10.

Subscribing to a better EPG seems like a small price to pay in order to sidestep network bastardry and improve the chances of seeing the last 5 minutes of your favourite show. 

These programmers are living in some kind of fantasy land, not the real world where the Australian TV schedule is constantly shuffled and shows deliberately run late to deter you from changing the channel. Programmers' efforts to outsmart each other have certainly helped drive a new generation of viewers to BitTorrent.

The networks also like to alter the names of shows, which can foil attempts to automatically record them with a season pass. Nine is especially guilty here as it likes to include "Sneak Peek" details in program titles, such as The Big Bang Theory (Includes Sneak Peek - Love Child). If your Personal Video Recorder is set to automatically record The Big Bang Theory, it will probably miss episodes with extra details added to the title.

One way to escape this mess is to abandon the free Electronic Program Guide completely. Instead opt for a personal video recorder with access to a custom EPG, such as the Fetch TV box I reviewed this week. While off-the-shelf recorders might brag of season pass-style features, they're crippled if they rely on the EPG embedded in the broadcast signal. To be more reliable they need to download a more accurate TV guide.

Fetch TV sources its EPG data from the networks via HWW, receiving the same details included in the broadcast signal. But behind the scenes Fetch TV goes to great efforts to standardise the EPG formatting, add missing metadata and update the "to-the-minute" start times to allow for last-minute schedule changes. The PVR then downloads this polished EPG via the internet. As a result, it's more likely to record your favourite show, from start to end, every week. You still might be left in the lurch occasionally, but the odds of everything going to plan significantly improve.

TiVo, Foxtel's iQ2, Telstra's T-Box and IceTV-compatible PVRs also rely on hand-curated EPGs which are more accurate than the mishmash churned out by the networks and embedded in the broadcast signal. Another advantage of a custom EPG is that data for every channel is automatically downloaded in the background. PVRs which rely on the EPG in the broadcast signal often can't update channels in the background, they rely on you to regularly view each channel. Without an EPG update they'll fail to record your favourite shows.

The downside of these custom EPGs is that they're mostly offered as part of a monthly subscription package, and the thought of paying to watch so-called free-to-air television doesn't sit well with many people. Subscribing to a better EPG seems like a small price to pay in order to sidestep network bastardry and improve the chances of seeing the last 5 minutes of your favourite show.

What do you use to record television? How often does it let you down?