DVR Saving TV

tivoTelevision executives have figured out that people watching their shows via TiVo-delay is a good thing.

Against almost every expectation, nearly half of all people watching delayed shows are still slouching on their couches watching messages about movies, cars and beer. According to Nielsen, 46 percent of viewers 18 to 49 years old for all four networks taken together are watching the commercials during playback, up slightly from last year. Why would people pass on the opportunity to skip through to the next chunk of program content?

The most basic reason, according to Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media buying firm, is that the behavior that has underpinned television since its invention still persists to a larger degree than expected. “It’s still a passive activity,” he said. And those passive viewers are watching in numbers big enough to turn some hits (“House” on Fox) into even bigger moneymakers, some middling successes (“How I Met Your Mother” on CBS) into healthier profit centers, and some seemingly endangered shows (“Heroes” on NBC) into possible survivors.

Two years ago, in a seismic change from past practice, Nielsen started measuring television consumption by the so-called commercial-plus-three ratings, which measure viewing for the commercials in shows that are watched either live or played back on digital video recorders within three days. This replaced the use of program ratings.

At the time, network executives fiercely resisted the change, fearing that they would never get credit for recorded shows because viewers would skip through all the commercials. But the figures show otherwise. “It’s completely counterintuitive,” said Alan Wurtzel, the president of research for NBC. “But when the facts come in, there they are.”

Almost across the board, the gains for playback are growing. The best preseason estimate for the current season, said David F. Poltrack, the chief research officer for CBS, was about a 1 percent increase from playback over the live program for the networks combined. Instead, many are in the range of 7 to 12 percent, with some shows having increases of more than 20 percent when DVR ratings are added. The four networks together are averaging a 10 percent increase.

There are two major reasons for DVRing a program:  Time shifting and commercial skipping.  Almost all of us do the former whereas not all of us do the latter.  So it’s only logical that the addition of DVR viewers who don’t fast forward through commercials to the live viewers would be a good thing for the networks.

I’m a pretty aggressive commercial skipper.  For that matter, I’ll fast forward through boring segments of shows (notably, non-political segments of “Saturday Night Live” and the non-roundtable portion of “This Week”).  But even I’ll occasionally forget to grab the remote and accidentally sit through a commercial.   Beyond that, I’ll intentionally watch commercials that may be of interest:  promos for movies that look interesting, funny commercials that I haven’t seen, or products that I’m thinking of buying.

Moreover, with the DVR, I watch far more television than I otherwise would.   I record numerous shows that wouldn’t be appointment viewing “just in case” I have time to watch them.  I also record several shows that are on during hours when my schedule doesn’t allow me to watch television.  And, of course, skipping commercials for products I wasn’t going to buy anyway allows me to view more shows because it’s easier to find a 40-minute window than a 60-minute window.

Individual shows have gained substantially. “House,” second among all shows in its live program rating (to “Grey’s Anatomy” on ABC), became the top show in terms of commercials viewed within three days with a 5.68 rating (about 6.53 million), gaining almost 18 percent. NBC’s comedy “The Office” had one of the single biggest gains — 26 percent from its live program rating — to 3.92 (4.5 million) for its rating including playbacks. The supposedly struggling NBC drama “Heroes” jumped 22 percent, as did another apparently flagging drama, “Fringe” on Fox. And a new ABC drama, the appropriately named “Flash Forward,” looks even more like a hit than it did with its original rating because its rating increased 14 percent with playbacks.

Many serial shows like “Lost” and “Heroes” would be unwatchable as a live show because of annoying and complicated plot twists and an erratic schedule.  But the DVR allows me to get several episodes queued up and watch them in bunches.  (Of course, that doesn’t fit into the 3-day window for the ratings companies.)

One other obvious reason why some shows do better on DVR than live is that the networks often idiotically run their most popular shows against other networks’ most popular shows, forcing live viewers to chose.  DVR viewers can either watch one live and record the other or record both and watch when convenient.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    DVR’s enhance TV viewing, which is why I don’t own one. I don’t want to watch that much TV and I know I would if I could. So obviously the DVRs offer an opportunity for TV programming that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Better, less repetitive commercials would be a start.

    (Us non-technical types though have figured out the mute button)

  2. Davebo says:

    For me if I’m watching the commercials it’s because I don’t have enough fast forward to get past them and there is nothing at all interesting on my other channel.

  3. sam says:

    But even I’ll occasionally forget to grab the remote and accidentally sit through a commercial.

    Excellent time to get up and go to the head, though.

  4. sam says:

    BTW, speaking of commercials and why they’re not all bad, check this out:

    E*TRADE Baby Outtakes

    Outtakes, of course, but the ads themselves are hilarious.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Think about what this is saying. 46% of viewers are watching the commercials. Logically, 54% are not. The language is unclear if you would be a commercial watcher or not (i.e. is it always skip, often skip or never skip commercials), when you occasionally watch a commercial. But just taking the numbers on their face value, over half of the viewers aren’t watching. Absent other data, that means the value to advertisers is down by ~50% of the 33% of viewers who use the DVR. Thus they have a product worth ~16% less than before (down ~2.5% in just the last year). And that is the good news.

  6. just me says:

    YEJ I think it is good news, because advertisers and TV executives expected the percentage of those skipping the commercials to be higher therefore there is still an advertising market, even if smaller for DVR users.

    I don’t have a DVR or any type of recorder. Either I watch the show or I miss it. I don’t watch much TV and have only had a real conflict between two shows I liked, that turned into a non conflict at some point, when they lost a major character and I lost interest in the show.

  7. Dodd says:

    Beyond that, I’ll intentionally watch commercials that may be of interest: promos for movies that look interesting, funny commercials that I haven’t seen, or products that I’m thinking of buying

    I’ve not been a regular live-TV veiwer in a long time, mainly preferring DVDs for the lack of commercials and freedom to watch when I want. But I’ve had a DVR since winter, so I am able to watch more current TV than I used to and still watch the way I wish.

    It may just be a coincidence, but it seems to me that the advertisers are responding to DVRs by making more visually arresting commercials (to entice you to stop and watch) and by use of more text on the screen.

    Incidentally, PD Shaw: I, too, avoided getting a DVR for a long time precisely because I didn’t want to end up watching more TV. I really haven’t, I’m just more up to date. There are a lot of really good shows on these days (which never ceases to amaze me), but only a few I watch promptly. Even the few I don’t shift to a later date as a matter of course, I still watch on delay so I can skip the commercials.