Shift in media landscape underscores differences between haves, have-nots

Digital video recorders — that is, TiVo and all its illegitimate kids — began the new TV season in nearly two-fifths of U.S. households. To which many will doubtless say, “Only 38%? But everyone I know has one!”

Even by today’s standards, the DVRs rate of ascent has been impressive, considering that such devices were only in about 1% of homes less than five years ago. Yet in addition to dramatically altering the economics of ad-supported television — and making ratings analysis even more confounding to lay people, spawning debate about arcane concerns like “live-plus-seven-day ratings” — the DVR also points to a shift toward a bifurcated media landscape, one that threatens to hasten the separation of haves from have-nots.

This media revolution, after all — the one where video consumption is more of a when, where and how-you-want-it proposition — is occurring during a period of serious financial stress.

Assuming DVRs or their technological equivalent continue along their present trajectory — while devices like iPads simultaneously proliferate — the audience is going to fracture between those still watching commercials the old-fashioned way and those well-equipped to avoid them.

The main problem in that for networks, according to Nielsen data, is that the DVR-using audience appears — by virtually every measure important to advertisers — more desirable than the non-DVR crowd. DVR homes rate markedly higher in terms of $100,000-plus incomes (by more than two to one), college education and white-collar workers — factors traditionally associated with an “upscale” demographic that networks can sell at a premium.

As noted in a Horizon Media study, early adopters of technology tend to be “a well-off set, earning an average household income well above the national average of $50,303.” A separate survey by Interpret not surprisingly found a similar dynamic regarding the still-nascent medium of 3D television.

Finally, there are the lingering effects of the recession, with high unemployment rates and a reluctance to spend. Even with the prospect of recovery, one suspects people fretting about mortgage payments will be reluctant to rush out and buy the next hot gadget.

Put these trends together, and you get a tale of two audiences. One will be zapping through programs, viewing them on-demand or punching them up in airports on portable Internet-accessible devices. Another will be more inclined to watch without those options — and that second group’s attention will be sold based on tonnage, not quality.

TiVo’s own analysis of its subscribers — and the way they utilize the box alternately dubbed “God’s machine” and the TV addict’s best friend — reinforces this impression.

Todd Juenger, VP-general manager of TiVo Audience Research & Measurement, stressed, that TiVo has all kinds of users, but if there’s one recurring trait, they over-index for higher levels of income and education.

Such distinctions risk sounding crude, to be sure, but if accurate, they augur additional changes in the kind of programming that’s ordered — and how it’s paid for.

With DVRs reaching critical mass — so much so that every network now includes a boilerplate disclaimer about the im-

pact of delayed viewing in their daily ratings spin — weaving messages into programming will become even more of an imperative. Pressure will grow on premium fare, meanwhile, to adopt a direct pay-to-view model.

Indeed, TiVo has found the most prestigious programs are more likely to be recorded and time-shifted, and also experience a higher level of zapping through commercials — a practice, as Juenger notes, which “worries me as somebody who loves quality TV. … Ultimately, that has to drag down the advertiser-supported economics of the show.”

Taken to its logical extreme, advertisers peddling big-ticket items will have to think twice about whether 30-second spots are an efficient use of marketing budgets. The companies still relying on TV in that traditional manner, rather, will be the ones pushing inexpensive products aimed at less-desirable groups: fast food, soft drinks, discount stores.

Smarter shows might become less attractive on wider platforms, migrating almost entirely into specific niches. The concept of programming to some wide-reaching common denominator is already seriously stressed as the audience splinters — with the exception of the occasional primetime breakthrough in the reality genre and major sports.

Broadcasters have derived a measure of consolation from the fact this shift isn’t happening as quickly as the Chicken Littles among them anticipated. While crystal balls do remain murky — and become even foggier amid a crush of newly proposed distribution platforms, including major Internet entities — seeing DVR penetration nearing 40% of homes suggests the future is getting closer.

For some, that forecast is bright and sunny, filled with amazing new gizmos and classy high-brow dramas. For others, it’s the gloom of fast-food ads, reality TV and a steady diet of cop procedurals. Because as much as Americans might chafe against the notion of class warfare and media elitism, whether we realize it or not, the battle lines within our TVs are already being drawn.

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