What’s the difference between “cloud DVR” and “on demand?”

A few weeks ago, Redditors talking about DIRECTV NOW made a fairly toxic accusation. They said that the service was taking the “cloud DVR” recordings customers were making and substituting “on demand” versions. That claim was debunked quickly. However, we really should all understand the difference between “cloud DVR” and “on demand” so that we know what those Redditors were upset about.

What is cloud DVR?

Cloud DVR service is the next big wave in the way you watch TV. It’s been around over a decade, but it’s just now beginning to get popular. That’s largely due to faster internet speeds. It just wasn’t possible to do a large-scale cloud DVR service a decade ago.

Cloud DVR replaces your home DVR with a server living somewhere else. If you say you want to record something, a DVR takes care of the job… in some data center somewhere. When you want to play it back, the server sends it to you.

There are several advantages to this method. In general, only one recording is made for everyone in the same area. Sometimes only one recording is made for everyone who uses that data center. This means lower costs since a pay-TV company doesn’t need to stock 25 million homes with DVRs. It also means they can invest in really high quality DVRs. The one in your home is good, but it’s not, like, military spec good.

Cloud DVR service is legal as long as the pay-TV company and the content provider come to fair terms and lately that’s been more common as content providers move away from an “over my dead body” stance to more of a “whatcha gonna do” stance in the way they think about streaming.

With Cloud DVR, you can record anything you can watch, including weird local programs on in the middle of the night in your area. That’s a big plus for this technology compared to on-demand. Speaking of which…

What is on demand?

On demand programming has been around for 10-15 years on cable and satellite systems. Generally speaking, it’s a similar sort of idea to cloud DVR. There’s one copy of a program and when people want it, a server somewhere delivers it to you. However, there are some differences between on demand and cloud DVR that mean two unique experiences for users.

On-Demand came first. It started out at a time when companies like Disney and Viacom were worried about piracy and about losing revenue to DVRs. So, on-demand programming generally comes with a lot more strings attached in the contract. Much of the time, the average person isn’t allowed to skip ads and the pay-TV company can’t stick in their own ads. Occasionally (and this is less common now) the pay-TV company pays a royalty for each on-demand program viewed.

On-demand is almost always associated with national programs, not local ones, and the typical pay-TV on demand library usually doesn’t have local news or other local programming on it. The only programs from local channels are the ones that air nationally.

On-Demand also sometimes includes programs that never aired at all, like movies and very old programming that’s not available anywhere else from your pay-TV provider.

So wrapping this all up:

  • Cloud DVR lets you record everything on your local channels. Not true with On-Demand.
  • A Cloud DVR doesn’t ever have a per-program fee. On-Demand sometimes does.
  • Cloud DVR lets you skip the commercials. On-Demand doesn’t always let you skip them.

You can see why people might be a little skeeved if they thought their recordings were being replaced by on-demand versions. Truth is, most folks don’t want to watch the commercials and that was kind of a big accusation.

It’s true that on-demand and cloud DVR are sort of merging and that has everything to do with streaming and how that programming is being presented. However, both are expected to be around for some time.

The bottom line, though — DIRECTV NOW isn’t automatically changing your cloud DVR recordings to on-demand versions. If it happened, it was probably an error, and it’s not happening in any sort of widespread fashion that I’m aware of.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.