A few weeks ago, we attempted to help a family recover TV shows from a DVR after that family changed satellite providers. I made some general comments along with suggesting the person could remove the hard drive and install it in a standard PC. A reader with more experience than I have with this clarified:
"Given that I know a few things about computers, I removed the standard hard drive from the DirecTV DVR and tried to find the files that I hoped I could then edit. No joy here. There's no partition to the drive, and since there's no known partition, then there are no files to be found.
"I spoke to a knowledgeable technician at DirecTV who after quite a lot of discussion indicated that the drive is simply a random-storage device. Yes, I know that's what a drive is, but he confirmed that with the smart-card it effectively writes the data in an encrypted form on the device, and there's nothing to be found there with a standard computer.
"Having failed in that attempt, I bought the Video Recorder from Blackmagic Design. I'd lose HD output, but I was more interested at that point in getting the show recorded. I hooked this up to my DirecTV system, and even through the component connections it uses DRM (digital rights management), which stopped me from seeing anything clearly except for the unencrypted 'info' station where they show you how the system works.
"I was trying to record local news channels to send to a friend doing research of news coverage from different regions to compare styles given market-ownership saturation (our location's useful to compare, because not all broadcasts are owned by the same monopoly).
"Blackmagic's tech said that none of their technology — or any of their competitors' — would be able to cleanly receive the signal from a set-top box. It needs to be un-DRM'd to be able to work, like from VHS, Video-8, or video cameras.
"On top of all that, I also tried to turn on my old DVR to watch the old games I'd saved. The system won't even boot up properly without a connection to the satellite to re-enable the box to show me anything because it's lost its 'authorization'. I'd need to re-hook it to the dish and have it added to my account for DirecTV to reactivate it.
"I've been told that Dish's Hopper offering will be able to move a competitor's videos onto their system so that you wouldn't lose your programming. I've also been told by a DirecTV salesperson that I should tell DirecTV that Hopper has promised that I can retain my shows if I move to them, and that to retain me I would want an upgraded system, which would enable saving all my existing programming.
"I don't believe for a minute that either of these will actually allow me to save shows outside of their box, but I keep hoping for a way to resolve this."
To make this even more difficult, the Federal Communications Commission decided to walk away from the issue of using your own hardware with cable.
A "cable card," to which the reader referred, has been advocated for almost a decade. It's a card you would rent from your cable company that would allow using any equipment you desired to tune and/or record TV shows from cable. The cable company would receive its fee and you would be able to use better equipment than it provides, as well as interchangeable equipment.
Recently, the FCC declared: "(As) with the physical interface itself, we find that it is appropriate, at this time, to refrain from specifying the exact manner in which this baseline of functionality is to be implemented."
In other words, no standards for cable card, and with no standards, bye bye cable card.
Leave it to the cable and satellite TV providers to leave coal in your stockings. May the FCC get stuck trying to slide down your chimney.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.