August 9, 2007

MythTV users to regain TV guide info -- for a price

Author: Nathan Willis

The free electronic program guide (EPG) data that Zap2it Labs currently provides to many MythTV users is scheduled to shut down on September 1. Today MythTV users learned how much a replacement service offered by Schedules Direct (SD) will cost.

A three-month, non-recurring service plan will cost $15. After that, users will be able to pay for a month-to-month service plan whose price has not yet been determined, and will depend on the number of subscribers. SD guide service will cover the United States and Canada only.

Although the announcement did not give a fixed start date, it is expected to begin on September 1. SD hopes to finalize its ongoing service plans before the three-month period elapses.

SD is a nonprofit organization founded by developers from the MythTV and XMLTV projects following the termination of the free Zap2It service. Originally formed as Easy TV Data, the group changed its name to Schedules Direct in July to avoid possible trademark confusion.

According to founder Chris Petersen, SD will be purchasing its EPG data from Tribune Media Services (TMS) at an undisclosed price -- but one Petersen describes as below the retail price TMS charges its commercial clients.

SD says it will charge customers for access to the EPG data stream only at the rate required to recover costs. An unnamed supporter donated server usage, and billing will be handled through PayPal. The $15 startup plan is designed to ensure that the service gets off the ground; once there are enough subscribers, the group estimates that recurring service will cost on the order of $20 per year.

In discussions on the mythtv-users mailing list, SD did not rule out the possibility of providing a free service in addition to the paid version at some point in the future, perhaps supplying fewer days of advance data.

TMS ran the Zap2It Labs EPG service, and announced its shutdown in June, citing misuse of the free data feed as its motivating factor. SD was formed in the wake of that announcement, and undertook a rapid search for an EPG solution. It approached existing TMS customers, but was told that sharing the data free of charge would violate TMS's terms of service. TMS's only competitor in the EPG service arena, Gemstar, did not respond to SD's inquires.

In the end, the only viable solution was to subscribe to TMS's EPG data service and try to recoup costs. Petersen says he is not at liberty to discuss the details of the agreement with TMS, but told the mailing list that the company was sympathetic to the needs of MythTV users, and genuinely regretted placing them in such a predicament.

Alternatives for EPG data do exist, but none approach the reliability, advanced scheduling time, and coverage for North America offered by the TMS data. For instance, MythTV can import guide data collected by "screen scrapers" that extract schedule info from station and network Web sites, but the process is prone to breakage when those sites redesign their Web pages, and is vulnerable to obfuscation by site maintainers. In some countries, EPG data is transmitted in television signals in Event Information Table (EIT) format, but EIT is not widely supported in North America and often provides only short-term scheduling info.

SD has at least one direct competitor: CTpvrannounced a similar for-pay EPG service also targeting MythTV users, although pricing has yet to be announced.

Interested parties can now subscribe to an announcement mailing list at to be notified when the SD service begins taking orders and operating, thus answering the concern voiced by many on mythtv-users that SD was being frustratingly taciturn about its plans so close to the Zap2It Labs shutdown date. For its part, Zap2It posted the news about SD's announcement on its own discussion forum, and has emailed the same information to users requesting help.


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