`Idol' finale falls flat with DVR users

Some with recording devices missed crowning of Sparks as winner when show ran over

May 25, 2007|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,sun reporter

Kimberly Pugh wanted to cry.

For 20 weeks, Pugh and her husband watched American Idol religiously. They sat through the guy who thought he was Taylor Hicks' twin; the emotional auditions; the seemingly unstoppable, off-key Sanjaya Malakar. Heading toward the finals, they cheered first for Melinda Doolittle, and then for Jordin Sparks as they prepared their digital video recorder to capture Wednesday's finale.

"We set our DVR for two hours and two minutes just to be sure," the 43-year-old Chicago yoga instructor said. "Then right as they were going to crown the new American Idol, the recording cut to a commercial and cut the show off.

"You make this huge commitment and then you don't even get to see the end," she said. "I feel kind of cheated. I really did want to cry."

The Pughs weren't the only ones who missed out. According to Nielsen Media Research, Idol's numbers were down; Wednesday's finale drew an audience of 30.7 million, compared with last year's 36.4 million. However online chat groups and other fan sites were sprinkled with complaints yesterday because the megahit ran several minutes over its scheduled two hours of programming, causing many DVR and TiVo users to miss recording the selection of Sparks as the next American Idol.

The glitch might not rank in broadcast history with the "Heidi Bowl," the nickname given a 1968 football playoff game that was famously pre-empted for a made-for-TV movie of Heidi, but it showed that such frustrations can occur even in the "TiVo" age with TV's most popular show.

It wasn't the first time: With digital recorders automatically set to capture a fixed hour of programming, devotees of the technology have reported missing out on some other big moments in the Oscars, Emmys and sporting events.

"This happens a lot more than you think," said Jose Alvear, 38, a researcher by day and blogger by night. Alvear, based in San Francisco, runs a blog called dvrbull etin.com that covers information and news about DVRs and personal video recorders, or PVRs.

Recording "live shows is a challenge," Alvear said. "It mostly happens with sports. They're unpredictable. There's no way around it unless you're pro-active about it. I have a TiVo so I try to set it up so that I record an extra five minutes after the show ends."

Even an extra five wasn't enough Wednesday when Idol ran a little over seven minutes past 10 p.m. Eastern time. Sparks wasn't crowned over challenger Blake Lewis until 10:04 p.m. and her weepy singing of "This is My Now" didn't start until after 10:06 p.m.

"Had we known the program would run over the allotted time, we definitely would have alerted our subscribers to pad a few extra minutes of recording time, as insurance," said Katie Ho, a spokeswoman for California-based TiVo.

"Be it the Oscars, the Grammys, assorted sporting events or American Idol, some events do run long. That's why we allow and encourage subscribers to pad extra minutes so they don't miss the finale of that respective event."

TiVo added a prompt in its set-up menu that asks users if extra recording time is needed. But it's no guarantee.

"Even though technology can make your life easier, it can't know when a live show is going to end," Alvear said. "When it comes right down to it, it's still up to you."

It's enough to make a fan think twice about devoting so much time next year - or at least rethinking the recorder settings.

"The whole purpose of watching is to see the winner," Pugh said, still perturbed. "I blame Fox."

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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