July 13, 2007

Easy TV Data promises TV listings for Myth TV users

Author: Nathan Willis

A group of developers from free software digital video recorder (DVR) related projects announced the first step towards a solution for obtaining free television listing information this week. The search for such a free guide data source has been on since June, when Zap2it Labsannounced it would shut down its free, XML-based service as of September 1.

Zap2it's announcement cited "continued misuse" of the service -- which it had offered "to hobbyists for their own personal, noncommercial" use -- and "other business factors" as reasons for discontinuing the service. Zap2it is a product of Tribune Media Services, a commercial TV listings provider supplying information to newspapers and proprietary DVRs.

Zap2it's primary product is a TV listings Web site, but its Zap2it Labs XML service proved more useful for free software projects because it provided a structured data source easily parsed for usage in a scheduling database. For free DVR projects like MythTV, such a commercial service is not available. The alternative method for acquiring guide data is "screen scraping" -- parsing the rendered HTML from TV listings Web sites, including Zap2it's.

Screen scraping is inherently less reliable in the long run because the HTML markup can change at any time, interrupting service until developers can adjust the parser. But even when the parser is functioning, the unstructured nature of HTML is inferior to the semantically marked up XML -- which portions of table content are episode titles, series names, actors' names, and so on must be determined by a human being.

A glimmer of hope

Zap2it's announcement touched off a frenzy of discussion among MythTV users. At the same time, MythTV's lead developers urged calm, assuring worried users that there was plenty of time in which to develop a working alternative to the Zap2it Labs service and to complete a smooth transition.

On Wednesday July 11, Chris Petersen posted a message to the mythtv-dev and mythtv-users mailing lists announcing the first visible indications as to what form that alternative would take.

Petersen, two other MythTV developers, a representative of the XMLTV project, and a representative of the MacProgramGuide project have formed an organization called Easy TV Data. XMLTV is a guide data manipulation utility used by MythTV and many other free software projects, including Freevo. MacProgramGuide is a searchable TV schedule tool for OS X.

Exactly what solution Easy TV Data will provide remains secret, but the group has set up a bare-bones Web site that reiterates the promise that a guide data solution will be in place by September 1. More immediately, Easy TV Data is actively soliciting both legal and accounting counsel to assist in setting up the organization's non-profit paperwork.

Just what Easy TV Data's solution will entail remains secret; the developers continue to be tight-lipped. But even these early steps, the first concrete actions visible to the public, are enough to soothe the growing anxiety of many free software DVR users.


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