City's DVR consumption provides glimpse at future

The 1982 sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” depicts a nightmare vision of Los Angeles in 2019 — a teeming mesh of cultures doused in perpetual acid rain, and populated by beautiful humanoid robots and flying cars.

Fortunately, most of that image hasn’t yet come to pass, though many faces here do look a little plastic, and the flying cars would certainly help navigate the damn 405 Freeway.

In some respects, however, L.A. does provide an advance snapshot of massing trends — mixing as it does early technological adoption and wildly diverse demography, hinting at where U.S. media consumption is gradually heading. Los Angeles might not just be the place where creativity blooms (and often dies), then, but the city of TV’s future.

Southern California remains unique in some ways. Hispanics represent a plurality in L.A. County, where it’s not unusual for Spanish-language programs to claim more than half of the 10 most-watched local shows, reflecting an immigrant population growing at markedly a faster rate than other groups. Even with rapid projected increases among Hispanics and more of what the U.S. Census calls “majority minority” cities, it will be a long time before that kind of critical mass is reached nationally.

L.A. also hosts the U.S.’ largest Asian community, and the Los Angeles Times’ plummeting circulation highlights the toll the varied, multilingual population has inflicted on the region’s major newspaper, although internal turmoil, mismanagement and ownership changes have all contributed to those woes.

Most fascinating, though, is the impact of new technology — specifically, digital video recorders such as TiVo — in a town where, depending on the zip code, everybody seems to have one of those wondrous little couch-potato helpers.

According to Nielsen data, DVR penetration in Los Angeles actually stands at 27% — considerably higher than the U.S. average of 17%. And not surprisingly, the way people watch TV here (unlike Manhattan, where everyone is too sophisticated to admit they own one) underscores the dramatic effect time-shifted viewing can have on certain kinds of programs.

Scanning May sweeps figures for what Nielsen calls “live-plus-seven-days” viewing — that is, the audience that recorded and watched a program within seven days of its initial broadcast — finds enormous gains over live tune-in for series with cultish followings, among them “Lost,” “Heroes” and “The Office.” Moreover, the fluctuations are even more pronounced in key demographics upon which advertisers focus, where ratings for some shows double taking this supplemental viewing into account.

Even in total audience, the plus-seven-days jumps can be pretty staggering. “Grey’s Anatomy” surges from 800,000 viewers to more than 1.1 million, and “Lost” and “Heroes” enjoy similar swells.

The demo surge is more impressive, especially for marginally rated shows. While operating off a much lower base, for example, factoring in delayed viewing doubled the 18-49 tally for CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Amazing Race,” while NBC’s “30 Rock” tripled.

Equally telling are those programs that don’t exhibit appreciable bumps when seven-day figures are tabulated — series like “Cops,” “Nanny 911″ and “Dateline NBC,” representing fare that people watch because it’s there but don’t go out of their way (or make an appointment) to see.

Beyond indicating just how un-beholden the TiVo-conversant crowd is to network schedules, this bodes well for quality shows that appeal to younger, more affluent and tech-savvy audiences. Advertisers, moreover, have relented on considering time-shifted ratings (albeit only up to “live-plus-three-days”) in negotiating media buys, with CBS presenting research that suggested including even that limited level of playback could “recapture” 3%-5% of broadcasters’ audience — a not-insignificant amount given the billions at stake.

Seen through this prism, L.A. is far from a nightmare vision but rather augurs potential good news for both networks and supporters of high-class scripted programs, which fans are more likely to record and savor at their leisure.

So welcome to L.A. — a city seldom associated with cultural breakthroughs, but at the forefront of have-it-your-way TV. Granted, this trend comes with its own bank of dark clouds, since rampant time-shifted viewing brings the ad-skipping threat that much closer to becoming a model-changing reality. Because even in this superficial, air-headed town, we’re much too cool to admit that we sit through commercials.

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