Digital Video Recorder changes the ratings equation

TV’s fastest growing network isn’t a network at all — it’s the DVR.

Viewers significantly upped their DVR use during premiere week, helping to bolster sampling for several new series.

“This time of the year, the DVR is definitely a positive for the networks,” said CBS chief research officer David Poltrack. “In a world where it’s difficult to get your product sampled, the DVR is an enabler.”

According to premiere-week numbers, DVRs are actually extending primetime both earlier and later, which is good news for the nets. At least in week one, that means some viewers were consuming four or five hours of primetime fare a night instead of the usual three.

Over all, that may have contributed to the strong launches of several new shows — as frosh entries like “Glee,” “Modern Family” and “FlashForward” are all off to nice starts, and returnees “Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS” are back with a vengeance.

“People are learning how to use the DVR to sample programs,” Poltrack said. “This is the perfect environment for that. People wanted to check out new shows but not miss the (season openers) of current shows.”

A recent study by Magna Global suggested that DVRs have been a marketing boon for the nets and are hardly the network killers that execs once feared.

But as DVR penetration — currently at 33% of TV households — continues to grow, it also means both the networks and local stations are increasingly competing with pre-recorded fare as viewers opt to avoid live TV. In some cases, that means nets are competing with programming from their own lineup that aired earlier in the week or night.

When viewers start watching primetime fare at 6 or 7 p.m., or at 11 p.m. or midnight, that’s good for the primetime bean counters — but not so good for local newscasts, syndicated fare in prime access or latenight yakkers.

Those programs are now all competing with primetime programming stored on DVRs. In other words, Conan O’Brien’s competition isn’t just David Letterman or “Nightline” — it’s that episode of “The Office” that aired earlier in the evening.

Those hours before and after primetime, as well as on Friday and Saturday nights, have became catch-up time for viewers. According to Poltrack, DVR use was up 46% on Friday in primetime compared to last year — which further explains why the nets barely registered on the night.

“There’s so much on Thursday night that people want to watch, so many programs, that last week a lot of that Thursday-night viewing spilled into Friday,” he said.

Poltrack suspects that some of those Friday shows were then recorded by viewers and played back on Saturday.

For Monday through Thursday last week, DVR playback during primetime hours was up around 36%, and up 34% during 11 p.m. newscasts and 27% during latenight.

Because the nets are getting credit for much of that viewing — thanks to the now-industry standard C3 measurement — and it’s hard to tell at what exact moment viewers are watching certain time-shifting shows, Turner research chief Jack Wakshlag said he doesn’t expect the leap in DVR usage to have much of an impact on network behavior.

“It’s a significant viewing source, we know it’s there, but I don’t know if it’s a negative for the industry,” Wakshlag said. “All this DVR viewing is incremental.”

For all the talk that the networks experienced a strong premiere week, Wakshlag noted that the nets were still down as a whole in week one vs. last year.

But broadcasters are still holding out for a Nielsen boost once C3 and live-plus-7 data (measurements that include DVR usage over the course of several days) arrives in the next few weeks.

Separately, Poltrack said early numbers on streaming video consumption of primetime fare also appears to be up by a healthy amount vs. last year.

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