Viewers watching shows anytime, anywhere

Unlike the sprinters chasing Usain Bolt when he shattered the 100-meter dash world record, I didn’t need any help catching up with the Jamaican phenom. By the next morning, thanks to ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and the Web, I had condensed about four hours of Sunday TV viewing — including Bolt’s run, Michael Vick’s “60 Minutes” interview and the juiciest part of Rachel Maddow’s maiden “Meet the Press” appearance — down to about 20 minutes.

In this age of second-chance TV, the math is simple: Watch now for hours, or watch later in minutes.

The Emmy Awards caused a ruckus when organizers proposed pretaping and “time-shifting” a number of trophy presentations in order to excise time-wasting material. Yet while talent guild protests scuttled the plan, the prevalence of time-shifting on other fronts has flummoxed various facets of the business, from Nielsen’s efforts to capture who’s watching what where and when to studios’ ability to monetize consumption of their products.

One needn’t be a technological whiz anymore to trim the fat and streamline the TV viewing experience. All that’s required is a computer, perhaps a digital video recorder and a little patience.

Even TiVo is increasingly unnecessary given the availability of content in other forums shortly after its initial exposure. Unless it’s a scripted program that one desperately wants to see — or perhaps a live sporting event where you truly care about the outcome — so much of TV can be swallowed in bite-sized bits that “time-shifting” is merely a matter of more efficiently allocating one’s time.

Besides, just zapping past commercials is for amateurs. The real trick now is finding TV’s choicest chunks — Kate Gosselin’s teary “Today” show interview, Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly trading volleys, Rick Sanchez’s goofiest empty-headed anchorman moments — and skipping the rest.

Networks have assumed, or perhaps hoped, that the benefits of this second-chance viewing would be promotional, but I’m beginning to suspect the drain outweighs that. Take the week of Aug. 17, when I didn’t watch “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” or “Late Show With David Letterman” but still caught Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s hilarious visit to a hotel for canines and a bikini-clad Britney Spears’ “Top 10″ list — after muting the online ads that preceded them.

Sorry about that last part, but I’m just being honest.

None of this would be of great concern — hey, freedom of choice is a wonderful thing, right? — if not for two complicating factors: First, it’s incredibly difficult to accurately monitor viewership when it’s diced up in this manner; and second, even if you can calculate the audience, it’s going to yield pennies on the dollar compared to traditional TV viewing.

Under siege yet again from its network clients — who are floating the prospect of bankrolling a rival system — Nielsen reiterated its commitment to “measuring across all screens” (TV, computers and mobile devices) to provide the data the industry craves. But the truth is that even reliable multiscreen measurement doesn’t solve the underlying problem of how to cash in on it.

Meanwhile, new rating techniques and criteria keep arising, from TiVo’s “Pure Program” ratings — which seemingly requires an advanced degree to read the press release — to Innerscope Research’s use of biometrics that integrate “eye tracking and measures of skin conductivity, heart rate variability, respiratory response and motion to provide deeper insight into consumers’ media and message consumption … and gauges emotions at their core — below conscious awareness.”

Sounds a little like “Total Recall,” but until all newborns are implanted with a chip to monitor their ongoing media usage, everyone’s chasing a fast-moving target.

As with evolving ratings, nobody knows precisely what will emerge as the dominant form of distribution, but it’s going to involve being able to dial up what you want on a whim — preferably fed directly into a big flatscreen TV as opposed to a smaller computer monitor. The next question remains how you get people to pay for that, especially when there are so many sites and services that obligingly sift through mountains of video and cull out the best moments, be they a heated cable interview, a latenight gag or some gaffe by a far-away local-news reporter.

Provided you’re willing to wait a bit, all that content is now available in minutes, without having to sit through the preliminaries watching Bolt limber up or the O’Brien monologue and guests that preceded and followed Triumph’s latest comedic triumph.

Eventually, though, somebody has to figure out how to entice, cajole or scare me and millions of other time-shifters into paying for the experience. Until then, those in the business are essentially doing the same thing as their audience: living on borrowed time.

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