Heavy DVR usage changes renewal strategy

This fall’s television season has been a relatively thankless one. Only one scripted series has been canceled, which is more a sign of withholding than hope. The uncertainty of the Writers Guild strike’s impact, coupled with the modest ratings returns for most new series, have made the networks miserly in handing out renewals.

The presumed culprit: the audience’s growing love affair with time-shifted viewing. People are still watching primetime programming, and at record levels. They’re just not doing it when networks and advertisers want and expect them to.

Thus the role of Nielsen’s live-plus-seven day measure, which includes data culled from a week’s worth of DVR playback, is the season’s hot topic. Live-plus-seven is a universal boon, granting every show a lift — with established series such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Office” and “Heroes” netting the highest gains. But it might not be enough to save the likes of NBC’s “Journeyman,” CBS’ “Cane,” Fox’s “K-Ville” and other struggling freshmen.

In the direst cases, the seven-day boost doesn’t help much.

“I don’t think it is ever going to take a failure and make it a hit, but it’s certainly going to tell you how well a show is doing with its audience,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive VP for programming and operations.

Younger-skewing series appear to reap greater benefits from live-plus-seven than others. The CW’s “Gossip Girl,” for example, rakes in slightly more than 1.47 million viewers in the 18-49 demo when it airs, according to the season-to-date measure through Oct. 28. (Ratings from that time are used here for the sake of direct comparison to the most recent live-plus-seven data available at the time of this report, which is from the same period.) Factoring in live-plus-seven lifts “Gossip Girl’s” numbers by 25%. “Reaper” enjoys an even larger improvement at 31%.

Granted, that’s an increase from a very low 18-to-49 live rating of 1.26, which translates to about 1.65 million in the demo. “Gossip Girl” has a smaller audience, but also is a top iTunes download, which, more than live-plus-seven, likely played a major role in the series earning the season’s first pickup.

As of Oct. 28, NBC’s “Chuck” had a live average of nearly 3.67 million viewers in the 18-49 demo, but it gets a 26% bump once live-plus-seven is factored in — no doubt playing a part in NBC deciding to pick up the show for the rest of the season.

To put all of this in perspective, the latest Nielsen statistics place DVR penetration at 21% of its National People Meter sample, up from about 10% at this time a year ago.

A better way to consider live-plus-seven, then, is as a measure of viewer engagement. Citing “Moonlight” as an example, Kahl says live-plus-seven data can demonstrate how sharply a show is trending upward. The Friday night vampire detective drama has made a 17% gain in live-plus-seven, and week-to-week increases have been significant.

Kahl also sees the metric as an apt indicator of which shows viewers consider to be worth recording.

“People have to go out their way to push a button and record a show,” he says. “They’re telling us that they don’t want to miss it, and that’s a good sign.”

Vince Manze, NBC’s program planning and scheduling guru, provides another example in “The Office,” which registers a 38% live-plus-seven lift in 18-to-49, and also happens to be a top iTunes download.

These new models not only gauge an audience’s loyalty and passion, he says, they help set expectations for subsequent revenue.

“If there’s a core audience — we’re talking millions here — these are the kind of people who will buy the DVD,” Manze says. “It’s the kind of show that will sell in the foreign marketplace. These are the other factors in determining a hit show.”

Live-plus-seven “will not save a marginal show,” Manze adds, “but it is a factor we would consider if it were a marginal show and (the lift) were significant.”

Not every scheduling executive is jumping on the live-plus-seven bandwagon. The better a network performs in overnights and live-plus-same-day, the less likely is it to sing plus-seven’s praises.

NBC is in fourth place this season and now has to ask itself if there are other new series besides “Chuck” and “Life” (another show recently picked up) that can help it improve. ABC, the season leader in demos, picked up three of its new contenders for full-season orders — “Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice,” “Samantha Who?” — before the strike and “Dirty Sexy Money” on Nov. 16. Not surprisingly, the Alphabet has a different point of view: “We have not relied on live-plus-seven for any of our decisions,” says ABC Entertainment executive VP Jeff Bader.

And with good reason. Although live-plus-seven provides a more accurate assessment of how many people are actually watching a given series, data is not available until 15 days after the broadcast week. Advertisers won’t pay for any viewing that takes place more than three days after an episode’s original airing. Known as C3, this measures how many viewers are watching advertisements both live and up to three days after the commercials originally air.

“The only currency is commercial-plus-three ratings,” says Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research. “Once you get beyond three days, it’s irrelevant.”

To an executive producer waiting to hear about the back nine, however, every bit helps. “There’s a glimmer of hope if your ratings are truly affected by that number,” admits “Dirty Sexy Money” executive producer Greg Berlanti, who was interviewed before the new drama was renewed.

He went on to add, “The old-fashioned rating, the one that’s on your desk the next afternoon, is still very much the one that decides your fate.”

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