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Abridging a TV-Series with TVWish

Abridging a TV-Series with TVWish

Abridging refers to watching only the best of a TV-series and avoiding the bad episodes. With movies, books and many other media, we pick them one at a time, based on our tastes, the recommendations of friends and critics, and of course marketing campaigns. We try to go to only the good movies. When we hear a movie is bad, we avoid it.

With TV series, however, the tradition has been to become a fan of the series. Each show is usually watched without much advanced knowledge. This is how the studios like it. They need to build regular high ratings to get the advertisers to pay top dollar. Even if they greenlight a terrible script, it still draws the fans and the advertisers pay. If they do it too often, they lose the fans, but random reinforcement is the best way to get the mice to press the button.

The Rationale

My idea is to watch only the best episodes of a series. Life is too short to watch bad TV. Some series are so good that every episode deserves your attention. Some have running plots that require you to watch even the bad ones to keep up with the story. But most series are, on average, well... average. But they sometimes have greatness and they are much greater if you take away the obvious rotten apples.

I've been doing this for a couple of years with my hard disk video recorder. For series in reruns, I would prepare a list of the best based on reviews and votes, and pick only those to record. For current shows, I would record each week, but wait a week to watch until opinions on the quality of the episode came out. If it was judged to be a stinker, I would just delete it and read the summary of what happened.

Making these lists turns out to be not so hard. Almost every series has a fan site with a detailed episode guide. Many have ratings of each episode and a few hold fan votes where hundreds, even thousands of fans vote on the episodes and generate a ranking. You can go to these sites and quickly learn what the top 50% are, the top 25%, 75% or whatever percentage you like.

Of course, the opinion of others doesn't match your own all the time. But in fact, the fans are pretty good at spotting the stinkers, which please not even the most loyal, and the gems as well. The results are never going to fully match what you want, but most of the errors will be down in the middle near your own personal cutoff point. I often disagree with popular opinion but I find this system works remarkably well.

Why wouldn't I want to watch all episodes of my favourite show?

If it's your favourite show, by all means go ahead. There are also shows with a lot of plot continuity that make you watch every one. For the greatest series of all time, watching them all can make sense.

But not all series that might interest you reach this level of quality. Even the greatest series have had their weak moments. These are hours you will never get back. We rarely buy all the books but more than a few authors, or attend all the movies of more than a couple of our favourite directors. TV is better with the same scrutiny.

How to do this

You do all this with the MythTV video recording software and TVWish a program for building large lists of shows. You'll be generating a file that looks something like this: likes like:

Series: Futurama  Command=Episode
The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings
Where No Fan Has Gone Before
The Why Of Fry
Roswell That Ends Well

Here is a sample file with the top 40 episodes (ranked by fan poll) of Futurama. This show doesn't have too much continuity to work out, so you can pretty much watch it at random once you have the basic pemise.

However, you can do a lot more than just build a list of chosen episodes.

How to gather your list

Finding fan sites with episdoe guides is easy in any web search. Add keywords like "fan poll", "fan vote" and so on to find votes or critical reviews. The site GEOS specializes in just such polls and it's a great place to start, and they are happy to have you use their lists with TVWish. The big site tv tome has many more series but sometimes voter counts are low. You need to click on individual episodes to get a link to the list of all rankings. For TVWish, it's actually good to get a list of episode titles along with either rankings (ie. 1st, 2nd, 3rd) or scores (9 out of 10, 4 stars, etc.) If you have rankings or scores you can use the entire list and tell the system what threshold to use. Otherwise, you need to generate a list of just the episodes you want to see.

If sites have episode lists as tables, as most do, you can select with your mouse, and cut and paste into a spreadsheet, like gnumeric or excel. Then you can delete columns you don't need and cut and paste or save back out to get your eventual text file.

In doing this you might not want to rely on just one source like a fan vote. You might find sites with critical reviews, and add in any episodes top-rated by those critics if you like them. You also will want to watch for two-parter episodes where one part is below your threshold and one part above. And you may want to check for episodes that aren't very entertaining but show (rather than tell) some important plot continuity points.

For a decent but not great series, watching about half to 2/3 is right. For a great series, it's still worth cutting out the last 5-10%.

Your goal is to get the list into an ordinary text file. If you have scores or ranks, you want to add them to the end of the lines in forms like rank=23 or score=8.3.

The order of the list matters if you are going to use the "miss" feature which tries to record shows in the order you specify, even if different stations are airing reruns from different periods of the show. Otherwise you can order them as you like.

Building your text file

You can build a text file in just about any text editor, from the most basic to the fancy wysywigs. If you are new to linux/unix, consider "nedit."

You will want to put one series per file. At the start of your file put

Series: series-name  Command=Episode

This sets both the default command to be an episode request and the series to be the provided name. From now on, ordinary lines with no commands will be the titles of episodes. Go ahead and fill them in.

You can also just make your file be a list of episode titles. When you include it, you can set all tags at once:

Include: /file/of/episodes   Command=Episode Series="name"

Tags on lines

You can add certain modifiers to your lines. They look like Keyword=Value and you usually put them at the start or end of your lines. If the values have spaces in them you must put them in quotes.

Episode numbers

In North America, you can use episode numbers. Each line would look like


instead of giving a title. You will need a sheet of reference numbers. However, the numbers must match the format used by your source of TV listings. The formats of episode numbers are many. If the series is on now, check out the "tvwish -e" mode which shows you the form of episode numbers. Once you know the form they are slighly more precise.


Add a tag of the form rank=12 to indicate the show ranks 12th.

A fine episode Rank=12

Shows one way to do it.


A score tag is lets you put a numeric score on an episode. Unlink ranks, a higher number is better. You can set a threshold for the score.

Another fine episode Score=8.4

You can get scores from fan votes, or map them from star ratings.


To make it easier to import lists of ranked episodes, you can use RatedEpisode instead of Episode as your command. This causes TVWish to try to find a ranking at the start of the line and/or a score at the end. Often episode lists from the web come in a form like this already, so you can just cut and paste your favourites

Series: Lovely Series Command=RatedEpisode
1st     Best Episode Ever
2nd     Also good to watch
98th    Possibly a waste of time

Or alternately:

Series: Lovely Series Command=RatedEpisode
Best Episode Ever                   9.5
Also good to watch                  8.8
Possibly a waste of time            5.2

Watching in order

Often series in syndication will come very quickly. Also, you may find the series is both doing old reruns and newer episodes. You don't want to watch them in the order they show up, you want to watch them in the ordered they aired.

Create your file ordered by airdate. Add a tag to the Series command of the form miss=2. This says that it should not record an episode if you've missed a gap of 2 or more episodes before it. Myth knows all the shows you've ever recorded, and we use this information. You could set the gap to one, but this might stop you cold just because you don't record an episode due to computer problems or scheduling conflicts. Generally, you can go ahead missing just one episode and the system will come back and catch it later.

As an alternative, put them in order but insert a line saying


This will cause any requests after it in the file to be ignored. This can be used, for example, to manually block requests for later shows until such time as you catch up. You need to track this manually.

You might want to get a printout of your file, so that when you watch the recordings, you know when there has been a gap, and perhaps (unless you want to not set expectations) the score of the episode.

The Series Command

A line of the form:

Series: series-name

defines the default series for all episode requests after it in the file. Defining the name is important, but you can also set various environment variables to control things. This is fully documented in the main TVWish documentation. Here are some important ones:


If you have rank tags on your entries, you don't have to remove the poorly ranked ones. You can have a complete set. This tag will cause requests to be ignored if they rank worse (higher) than this number. If you know there are 120 episodes, then minrank=60 is the tag to add to get the best half of them.


As above, but the rank is set as a percentage of the total number of non-comment lines in the file of episodes. Thus that file can grow and your percentage will change your minimum rank with it.


As above, but for Score tags. The score must exceed this number of the episode is not recorded.

Usually the rank and score will be correlated so there is not much call to use both, though you could.

Setting a default command

For most series Abridging files, you will want to set the default Command to "Episode" or "RatedEpisode" and set a series. Thus almost all Abridging files will begin with something like:

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer   Command=Episode
# And now the best episodes


You can also abridge a series by asking to see all of it, except a certain list of known episodes you don't want to see because they are known to be bad, or you've simply seen them already. To do this, create a file with an initial "Series:" definition, then put in lines of the form:

Exclude: episode-title

for all the episodes you wish to exclude. Then follow all these with a request to record every (other) episode of the series:

Episode: %

Because '%' is the wildcard character, it matches every single episode. However, the excluded episodes will be removed from the request. You can't use wildcards in the Exclusion list, matches must be exact.

You may view this as safer than an inclusive list, or easier if you just want to exclude a small number of episodes.

How to make text files

Some users are more used to word processors than text file editors. I predict that people will eventually prepare lists of series with ratings in a format that TVWish can handle. Or it can be trained to handle the formats of some web sites. However, if all you want to do is get the episode names into a file, you can usually do it with simple cut and paste. If you are drawing from a web table, a good trick is to cut and paste into a spreadsheet, like the free linux gnumeric spreadsheet. That will copy the table into the spreadsheet, and then (unlike your browser) you can select and copy just the column with the episode titles. Or you can delete all columns in the spreadsheet except the ranking and the title, and then copy and paste or export the results into a regular text file. Then, with global search and replace, you can put the tags in as needed -- or, if it looks safe, use the "RatedEpisode" default command instead of "Episode" which requires the formal tags.

Or, you may find others have already put the files in this format, and just copy their files from the web.

If you don't want to deal with rankings, just using your text editor on a complete list of episodes and deleting the lines with the episodes you don't want to see is a pretty straightforward thing to do.

More advanced example

This list of All episodes of "Angel" with rankings shows the more complex operations. In fact, you can use this list and adjust the threshold to alter how many episodes you record.

Traps when watching an abridged series

When you watch an abridged series, it's easy to think to yourself, "Wow, this series is a lot better than I thought!" and decide to switch back to watching all of them. And sometimes that's true, but sometimes it's because abridging is really doing its job. A good test is to deliberately watch an episode well below your threshold, and when done, ask if that was time well spent. (Or simply if you might have been better entertained watching a better episode of some other show, because the truth is, if you have a life, each hour you spend on one show is probably an hour you won't spend on another.)

If it really grabbed you, repeat this and consider lowering your threshold. If it didn't, stay where you are. Note I do not suggest you watch the one just below your threshold. That has a moderate chance of being good, since popular opinion will not always match your taste. What matters is that it also has, even worse than regular TV, an above average chance of being bad. You're playing averages a bit here to maximize the quality of your TV viewing. You can't watch all the TV you might enjoy, so you want the time you do spend to be of the highest quality. Watch the upper tiers and you are highly likely to be rewarded. Watch the lower ranks and it's more likely the other way around. While your tastes and the tastes of fan votes or critics won't match, you aren't going to miss any of the true gems.