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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Fun at the Coliseum (Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?)

One of the most innovative, controversial, and misunderstood TiVo technologies is the "TiVo Suggestions" feature. On the TiVo remote are two special buttons, a thumb pointing up (colored green on most remotes) and one pointing down (colored red on most remotes). As you watch live TV, record programs, and scan programs listed in the Guide, Now Playing, and elsewhere, you can tell TiVo which shows you like and which you don't by giving them the proverbial thumbs up or thumbs down. You can actually give up to three thumbs up or three thumbs down to communicate your level of interest (or not) in a program. The TiVo software uses these "Thumb Ratings" to suggest (and record) other programs it thinks you might like when there's free space on your hard drive. TiVo, of course, always gives preference to your recording desires and only records shows from its TiVo Suggestions list when there's free space (see Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1 The TiVo Suggestions List.


We associate the thumbs up and thumbs down gestures with Roman emperors who would allegedly decide the fate of Coliseum gladiators by giving one of these signals. The problem is that historians have no proof that thumbs up actually meant spare him and thumbs down meant that the lion eats tonight (or whatever gruesome fate was in store). We've sort of decided by default which means good and which means bad because we tend to associate up with good things (heaven) and down with bad (hell).

As is often the case with high-technology, users of TiVo ascribe way too much intelligence to this function, thinking that TiVo, Inc. has developed some H.A.L.-like artificial intelligence that lives inside your DVR (or in some ominously large server farm someplace), constantly mulling over your viewing habits, trying to decide whether you only like dating shows with a hot tub segment or also ones where the contestants have to diss each other mercilessly to become the last dater standing. This technology is also controversial because there is an "upstream component;" in other words, some of your viewing data gets sent back to TiVo, Inc.'s central computers. There have been frequent outcries of invasion of privacy.

It's really not as exciting as all that. The TiVo Suggestions feature (sometimes referred to as the "suggestion engine") simply keeps track of show categories that you like (or dislike) and bases its choices for its own recording behavior on that. So, if you've given three thumbs up to two different makeover shows, for instance, given some free space on your hard drive, TiVo might record a third such program. It's really not sophisticated enough to discern likes and dislikes within a given show category. If you've given thumbs up to two different motorcycle-building shows, but one thumb down to a car building show, TiVo is still likely to record a second car building program if its stored keywords (the information that the suggestion engine uses to make matches) includes matches between the two types of shows (such as "how to").


If you got carried away when you first got your TiVo, spending hours hammering away on the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down buttons, you may find that your Suggestions are not as right on as they could be. It's easy to clear them and start over. Go to TiVo Central/DTV Central -> TiVo Messages & Set Up -> Restart or Reset System (Series 1: TiVo Central -> Messages & Set Up -> System Reset) and choose Reset Thumb Ratings & Suggestions.

Here are some tips for how to more effectively use the TiVo Suggestions feature:

  • Don't be tempted to overuse the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down buttons. It may be fun when you first get your TiVo, but you really don't have to sit there voting on every show in TiVo's various program lists. Keep in mind that every time you record a program, TiVo considers that a 1-thumb "vote" for it.

  • To get TiVo started, give Thumbs Up to a few programs you really like. Give two thumbs to shows you especially like. Keep in mind that TiVo really thinks in terms of categories more than actual program content, so if you like reality shows, give Thumbs Up to a few and TiVo will likely start recording others. Most experienced TiVo users caution against the use of three thumbs. Give three thumbs to a couple of reality shows, and before you know it, you may have a Surreal Life marathon soiling your hard drive.

  • Use Thumbs Down sparingly. If you don't like a category of show (say cop dramas), it's okay to give one or two thumbs down. Again, think in terms of genres (show categories). By "voting" negative on one such show (especially with more than one thumb), it will likely not record anything in the genre. Also, the suggestion engine doesn't just look at the show category, it also looks at actors and directors, so be careful about giving thumbs down to something you don't like if it features an actor, for instance, that you do. So, if you're a big Johnny Depp fan, but in your anti-cop-drama fervor, you give a couple of Thumbs Down to reruns of 21 Jump Street, TiVo may not record another program starring Johnny Depp.

  • In general, it's best to vote far more frequently for what you do like. A few well-placed Thumbs Up to indicate your interest in a genre, say two thumbs for Star Trek Enterprise, is likely to also score you reruns of Voyager, Deep Space 9, and Star Trek: Next Generation, and also the Battlestar Galactica miniseries as well. And what geek wouldn't be happy with that? Okay, forget we brought up Voyager (just don't vote your conscience and give it Thumbs Down—that's what the "Delete Now" command is for).

  • If you've scheduled a show to be recorded and then you see another show on at the same time that you like, give it a Thumbs Up. If the show is rerun, TiVo might record it. This, of course, is only worth doing on channels such as TLC, Discovery, Food Network, and others that frequently run new programming in multiple timeslots.

Questions over how the suggestion engine works, where it works, and what gets sent back to the TiVo Broadcast Center are frequently raised by TiVo users, especially newbies, in online forums. Most of the work is actually done within your TiVo. The TiVo software keeps track of your yay and nay thumb ratings (and what you've recorded) and correlates this information to make further suggestions (and "TiVo Suggestions" recordings). Where some users start to get fidgety is in knowing that this data heads upstream back to TiVo, Inc. during TiVo's daily call. What gets sent back is extremely detailed viewing behavior (right down to each click of your remote control), but none of this is attached to your personal TiVo account information (only to your ZIP code). TiVo, Inc. calls this "Anonymous User Information" and insists that it is in no way linked with your TiVo's serial number or any other specific user account information. Upstream viewing information is used, among other things, for correlating viewer preferences. So, TiVo, Inc.'s servers might say: Hey, look at this, a bunch of people who watch Monster Garage also like Mythbusters. These shows are not in the same show category, but they likely share an overlap in audience. So the software on TiVo Inc.'s end will change the information in every user's TiVo Suggestions database, so that if you start recording one of these shows, TiVo might record the other. At least it works something like this. Exactly how the suggestion engine works is something of a mystery, but TiVo, Inc. is clear that the viewing habits of specific TiVo households are not monitored in any way. They say that they also use the behavioral information (exactly how you're using the remote control) to better design future TiVo hardware and software. And, not surprisingly, they "share" this collected viewing information (a demographer's and advertiser's dream) with their partners (like Nielsen) to better target advertising, to instantly know what people have watched, and so forth. If this type of down-to-the-click monitoring (however anonymous) gives you a case of the Orwellian creeps, you can ask to opt out of such data collection by calling TiVo, Inc.


Don't forget, TiVo Suggestions is just one way of getting TiVo to record programs that you might like. There are also WishLists where you can specify categories, titles, actors, and so on for TiVo to be on the lookout for. See the WishLists section later in this chapter.

If you are interested in knowing more about TiVo's privacy policy and how and what it collects in terms of viewing data, check out the files on its Privacy Policy page (http://www.tivo.com/5.11.asp). The White Paper stored there goes into some detail about TiVo's privacy policies, data encryption methods, and how it uses collected viewing data.

"My TiVo Thinks I'm Gay" (and Other Funny TiVo Suggestions Tales)

It's become something of an urban legend. Someone gets a TiVo, watches a few programs, plays with the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down buttons, and before they know it, they're having to explain to their spouse why their new digital video recorder is filled up with dating shows, a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy marathon, and some softcore porn. This probably all got started with the publishing in the Wall Street Journal in 2002 of a piece by Jeffrey Zaslow titled "Oh No! My TiVo Thinks I'm Gay." The piece contained various humorous stories of TiVos recording shows of a certain genre and their owners trying to convince TiVo they were not who TiVo thought they were by giving many Thumbs Up to shows in other genres. In the example of the article's title, a TiVo owner started to fear his TiVo thought he was gay (recording many of what he considered gay-themed programs), so he started giving Thumbs Up to lots of "guy stuff," and before he knew it, his TiVo had him pegged as a crazed Nazi fan, recording the endless parade of documentaries and biographies of Hitler and his henchmen which the History Channel never seems to run out of. This same incident also became a subplot on King of Queens, securing the "My TiVo thinks I'm Gay" idea within popular culture. Other TV shows have run similar themes (the short-lived Mind of the Married Man on HBO had an almost identical plot line). Conan O'Brien has told the story several times on Late Night about getting a TiVo, hooking it up, playing with the buttons on his remote, and watching a few episodes of G-String Divas on HBO (that just happened to be on). Work took him away from TV-viewing for a few days, and when he and his wife finally sat down to watch TV, he had some explaining to do when he found his hard drive filled with softcore porn.


If you want to completely put all of this silliness behind you, it's as easy as turning off the Suggestions feature. This is done in the Settings section of TiVo Messages & Setup.

Of course, most of these stories are silly. If you're imagining that your TiVo is thinking anything, you've got bigger problems than trying to convince it of your sexual preference. If your TiVo starts to record too much of one genre, give Thumbs Up to a few programs in other categories (don't overdo it). Since most TiVos are likely used by more than one viewer, each with different preferences, the TiVo Suggestions will likely be from a diversity of genres. TiVo may skew heavily toward one type of programming or another in the beginning, but over time, it should settle into offering enough desirable content to keep you (and other family members) happy.

And then there's the woeful tale: "My TiVo thinks I'm Hispanic (or Indian or Arab or...)!" We've heard stories about people's TiVos filling up with shows from Telemundo and other Spanish-speaking channels because they've given thumbs up to the Latin Grammies or other similar shows on English-speaking channels. This is easily corrected: If you don't speak Spanish and don't want all-Spanish channels (c'mon who doesn't like Mexican soaps and ribald game shows?) , or other foreign language channels, simply remove them from your channel lineup altogether (see Figure 3.2). Here's how this is done:

  1. From TiVo Central, go to TiVo Messages & Setup -> Settings -> Preferences -> Customize Channels (Messages & Setup -> Settings -> My Preferences -> Customize Channels).

  2. From here, select Channels You Receive. (BTW: On TiVo Series 1 and Series 2 DirecTV DVRs, there is no Settings submenu; you go right from Messages & Setup to My Preferences.)

  3. Now simply scroll through the channel list and deselect (by hitting the Select button to uncheck them) any channels you don't want, and TiVo will no longer consider anything on those channels when recording suggestions. Obviously this can be done for any type of programming. For instance, Gareth hates animals (well maybe hate's too strong a word), so he could easily nuke Animal Planet (if his son would let him). By removing all of the channels you don't actually watch, you not only prevent content from them being recorded, it also saves you time when scrolling through the Guide listings. Take that Home Shopping Network and CSPAN2!


In discussing TiVo menus throughout this book, we've done our best to point out differences between series and operating systems. Exactly how the menus appear has everything to do with which version of the OS you have on your machine (and whether it's a standalone, DirecTV DVR, or a DVD/TiVo combo model). At a certain point, it becomes too confusing to point out every minor difference in menu appearance. Most of the differences are minor (for example, "Now Showing on TiVo" on Series 2 standalone versus "Now Showing" on Series 1).

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 Customizing your channel lineup.

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