January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

It used to be that the most difficult part of taping your favorite TV show was figuring out how to set the VCR clock. But now there’s something more confusing: determining when the show actually starts. Recently, we’ve suspected that the networks have been cheating a bit on start times, a suspicion that began when we noticed our tapes were cutting off the beginnings of programs. To test our theory, we checked the beginning times of a random sampling of shows during the month of December against the Master Clock of the United States, the country’s standard timepiece. The results? Just as we thought: Some of the Big Four are beginning several of their sitcoms and dramas ahead of schedule, anywhere from a few seconds to over a minute early. Our informal survey found NBC and Fox jumping the gun most frequently, while ABC was the most punctual.

What’s going on? While ABC’s senior vice president of program planning and scheduling, Jeff Bader, says he hasn’t noticed a problem, he has a few theories: ”Maybe they’re trying to get a jump [on the other shows]. Or maybe they want 30 seconds more promo time in a higher-rated show.” NBC and CBS pooh-pooh those ideas; Fox declines to comment. ”I wish I had some big secret to share with you,” says an NBC spokesman, ”but it really is as simple as a program occasionally coming in long or short and we [have to] juggle a little bit.” A CBS spokesman says: ”You never want to confuse your viewer. They’re trained to tune in on the hour.” So for now, frequent tapers may just have to relearn how to set their VCR clocks — this time, a few minutes ahead.

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