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How DVRs Saved Television

by @ 4:23 pm on November 2, 2009. Filed under Technology, Television, TiVo

It took a long enough time, but it seems that television executives are figuring out that time-delay recording devices like TiVo are the best thing they ever happened to television:

In what may seem a media business version of the Stockholm syndrome, television network executives have fallen in love with a former tormentor: the digital video recorder.

The reason is not simply that more households own DVRs — 33 percent compared with 28 percent at this point in 2008 — helping some marginal shows become hits. It is also that more people seem content to sit through the commercials than networks once thought.

These factors combined mean DVR ratings now add significantly to live ratings and thus to ad revenue.

“The DVR was going to kill television,” said Andy Donchin, director of media investment for the ad agency Carat. “It hasn’t.”

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.

As James Joyner notes, there are two reasons to DVR a television: Time shifting so that you can watch it at a more convenient time and commercial skipping. I tend to fall into both categories in that I record programs so I can watch them at a more convenient time and I’m pretty aggressive about skipping, as fast as possible, over commercials or parts of a show that I’m not interested in. Apparently, though, there are enough people who still sit there watching the commercials to make the networks happy.

It’s also interesting to note some of the numbers:

In the 18-to-49 group of viewers — the one prized by networks because most ad sales are directed there — Fox has the biggest percentage increase, from an average rating of 2.39 (which translates into about 2.5 million viewers) for its live programs to a 2.71 rating (about 3.1 million viewers) when the three-day DVR playback results are added in.

The numbers for ABC were a 2.5 rating live (2.87 million viewers) to a 2.81 (3.27 million) after three days. CBS had a 2.62 live (just over three million) and a 2.79 (3.2 million) after three days. NBC had 1.79 live (2.05 million) and 1.91 (2.19 million) after three days.

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.

Frankly, I’ll honestly say that I may watch more television thanks to having a DVR than I otherwise might. ABC’s FlashForward is an example — it’s a show with an interesting premise and many intertwining plot lines. Watching it live doesn’t work simply because if you miss a show or two, your left behind in the plot. Being able to record and watch the show later, though, means I can keep up with the show at my convenience.

One Response to “How DVRs Saved Television”

  1. BarryT says:

    I skip most commercials also, if I’m paying attention and my hands are free (they’re not at the moment because I’m typing). However, because the DVR skips fast enough that the program will soon restart, I tend to watch the high-speed commercials flicker past. So I’m paying more attention to the commercials than when I go stir the stew during a commercial.

    Skipping past a commercial that I recognize is less lost time for me, but I’m actually recognizing it and thus its gets more attention. My intent is to identify when I’m near the end of the commercials, but to do that I’m having to recognize and recall the ads. Just what they want, although in a different way.

    Also, when an interesting new commercial pops up, I actually sometimes rewind and watch it. I wonder how well their statistics indicate that.

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