Back in January 2007, digital recording devices were few and far between: Just 12.3 percent of households used DVRs, according to Nielsen. Fast-forward three years — no pun intended — and the picture has totally changed: Nielsen estimates that one in three homes uses a DVR (like TiVo or a similar device provided by cable companies) to record and play back their favorite shows, and that number is only growing. DVRs have affected everything from ratings and network scheduling to the very story lines writers craft for their shows. ”This is the wild Wild West,” says Kelly Kahl, a senior VP who oversees scheduling on both CBS and The CW, of the new DVR-centric landscape. ”It’s interesting, but it’s also a little scary.” Not to mention confusing. Where do DVR ratings come from, anyway? Which shows actually benefit the most — and least — from them? And how are DVRs changing the way networks do business? We break down the time-shifting revolution for you, burning question by burning question.
So how exactly are DVR ratings calculated?
DVR numbers, which reflect how many people watched a recorded show within seven days of the original airing, are collected the same way that live viewing ratings are — through a national TV audience sample of 12,300 Nielsen families. That sample could get a lot larger, and arguably more accurate, if cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner turned their DVR data over to Nielsen, but at the moment they have no interest in giving up what they call proprietary information. Still, advertisers are clamoring for a change. ”We have a saying here,” says Sam R. Armando, senior VP at media agency Starcom. ”’Free the data!’ The cable providers have that info — but it has grown so quickly they haven’t found out a way to package it, record it, and, most importantly, monetize it.”
What kinds of shows are DVR’d the most?
This season’s overall DVR champ is regular ratings giant The Mentalist (see chart on page 40), which earns an additional 2.97 million viewers — a 19.1 percent bump, for a total audience of 18.52 million. But you don’t need huge overall ratings to be a DVR winner. Many quirky comedies receive a time-shifting boost: The Office is a top 10 DVR performer, with a 23.5 percent increase to 10.16 million total viewers. And Glee gets a 23.4 percent hike, to 9.01 million, once DVR numbers are factored in. The genre that receives the biggest lift from the DVR, however, is science fiction. FlashForward (19.6 percent) and Fringe (32.6 percent) — which don’t crack the top 20 of same-day viewership — are hits on DVRs, each pulling 1.9 million of their total audience from playback. Dollhouse, meanwhile, has the highest DVR percentage of any show on network TV, at 38.3 percent. (That loyal DVR audience is one reason the low-rated drama was renewed for fall 2009, although Fox has since pulled the plug on the series.) ”Sci-fi tends to be a younger, more tech-friendly audience,” Kahl says. ”So these are people who are probably early adopters of DVRs.”
The youth-oriented lineup at The CW is a winner too, with 6 of the top 12 most time-shifted shows by percentage (including Melrose Place at 28.8 percent). All of that comes with one major caveat, however: It’s easy for a show to have an impressive-looking rise when its total audience is so small. For example, Melrose’s 420,000 DVR viewers are a far cry from the 2 million-plus added to the top DVR’d shows, and less than half of Dollhouse’s 850,000.
There are quite a few losers in the DVR game as well. Remember when the folks at NBC claimed that The Jay Leno Show would be ”DVR-proof”? Well, they were right! The talk show earns just a 3.5 percent increase. Reality TV programs also have a poor DVR track record: ABC’s Dancing With the Stars’ Monday episode ranks third in same-day viewers, but its DVR ranking is only 52nd, with just a 3.8 percent bump. Survivor and The Amazing Race also get only minor increases. (Apparently, the DVR tribe has spoken.) And the most curious DVR casualty? Fox’s Sunday-night animation block. All four of the cartoons, including Family Guy, are leapfrogged by other programs once time-shifted viewing is taken into account, with The Simpsons (8 percent) and The Cleveland Show (6.9 percent) taking tumbles of at least 15 spots from the same-day viewing chart versus the DVR chart. D’oh!