How to build a free “On Demand” library with a DVR

Thumbnails of dozens of TV shows

The typical Tablo TV show display screen

It’s a fun perk of most pay-TV subscriptions to have access to a bunch of on-demand programming. It’s nice to flip through the listings and find something worth watching, even if it usually comes with unskippable advertising. (Ditto for Crackle and other free, ad-supported services.)

But I’ve found a way to use an over-the-air TV DVR (such as Tablo or DVR+) to build a better version of the on-demand vault. All it takes is sufficient hard drive space and about a half hour of planning every week. My secret is to record every movie, show, and sporting event that I think I might want to watch any time in the future.

With the Tablo, it’s pretty easy. After the app spends some time syncing up with the receiver, I start by checking OTA sports, typically a sad little list. Then channel by channel, I sift through available TV shows and movies. (Bonus points if a movie is on the local PBS station. On Spanish-language channels, anything but sports is out.) Along the way, I tell the DVR to record this and that, which usually adds up to more TV than I have time to watch in a month.

The DVR+ isn’t quite as friendly, though its guide data doesn’t require a subscription like Tablo’s. In this case, I fire up TitanTV and go to the custom broadcast channel grid that I created earlier. Then I click on each channel and thumb through its three-day program grid. When I see something I want to record, I search DVR+ for the title and set the recording.

Both DVRs use external USB hard drives, and it’s great that they’re coming down in price. There’s no good excuse any more for getting a portable drive that’s less than 1 terabyte, and you should probably spend a little more to get a 2 TB drive. That’ll hold a huge library of shows that your DVR recorded while you didn’t even notice. (For example, my 2 TB drive currently holds over a dozen sporting events, over 200 movies, and close to 1000 TV episodes.)

The best part is when you get a chance to sit down and watch something from the weeks’ accumulation of shows. It’s just like an on-demand library except it won’t contain anything you hate. And once you start watching, you’ll be free to jump past any commercials. Maintenance is easy; when you discover that a particular show wasn’t worth the dozen episodes you requested, just delete them to free up space for the next potential binge.

When I pull up my long list of recordings and the wife asks, “What’s all that trash?,” I don’t mind. It’s better to record a show that I’ll never watch than to wish for entertainment and not have enough. Besides, she’s used to me by now.