The old ritual of buying the Radio and TV Times every Thursday to keep abreast of what’s on is as much a part of the past as getting off the sofa to change the channel. Even the electronic programme guide which replaced the magazines is fast approaching its sell-by date.
The problem is that the on-screen guide built into your TV or set-top box works only on a single platform, most often Freeview or Sky. But your viewing probably draws in content from a much deeper catchment: the iPlayer and Netflix to name but two.
Each of these has some sort of personalised list that reminds you about programmes or series you are half-way through, but they all work differently and not all are easy to find among the trailers and other “highlights” being pushed in your direction.
What would be more helpful is a single service that pulled in your watchlists from every service to which you subscribe and presented them to you in a unified interface. Unfortunately, so such product exists and the level of competition among the streaming providers means that it probably never will.
But there are a few apps and websites that offer the next best thing. In some cases, they will track what you watch and update themselves automatically.
This last piece of functionality comes courtesy of a website called trakt.tv, which in turn connects to several TV databases and pulls in the episode details and transmission dates of just about every show on air, either side of the Atlantic. If you stream programmes on a compatible media centre PC, Trakt takes information from that on what shows and movies you have watched.
But Trakt’s website, littered with adverts and trailers, is almost impossible to navigate. And its developers to not make apps that will run on your phone or tablet, let alone your TV.
But the site does list a raft of third-party apps that use some of Trakt’s functionality underneath interfaces of their own and which let you search and list programmes of your choice, irrespective of whether they are on BBC1, the iPlayer or Amazon. This is where you are most likely to find your next-generation programme guide.
The best of the apps, currently only for Android phones, is Hobi, whose free version includes most of the features of the paid-for one, and contains no adverts. If you have set up a list of favourite programmes on Trakt, Hobi lets you import it, but if you have only a dozen or so, it’s just as easy to enter them by hand.
Searching for a title brings up a list of episodes with a synopsis, original transmission date and artwork for each. You then view them either as a list of available episodes or in a calendar of forthcoming ones, and your phone can remind you before the next one is due to begin. If a show is between series, the app will also keep track of when it’s back on air.
But there are limitations. Shows are often available on streaming services for a limited period only, and Hobi does not know when time is about to run out. And if the show you want is on Freeview or Sky, you still have to remember to record it on your set-top box.
Hobi doesn’t save actual programmes; just the billing details. And because it runs on your phone and not your TV, here is no button that lets you play them there and then. But compared to the old method of scribbling on the Radio Times with a highlighter pen, it’s a revelation.