Increase in DVR usage could shake up industry practices

TV bizzers can’t stop talking about the big jump in DVR usage during the past week and what it means for the primetime biz.

The bad news for the Big Four networks in the early going of the 2012-13 campaign is that ratings have been soft for many new and returning series. The good news is that higher DVR playback numbers are helping to close the gap for a number of top-priority shows (Daily Variety, Oct. 2). And the fact that DVRs are humming away at a higher rate this fall is a good indicator that there are plenty of shows that viewers want to sample.

But the big question raised by the growing influence of DVR numbers is how the increase in delayed viewing may shake up industry practices — in everything from how a show’s performance is evaluated to how and when networks spin ratings results. Industry insiders say overnight ratings can still clearly indicate whether a show is a big hit or a colossal miss, but for the majority of programs that land somewhere in the middle, the process of determining whether a show deserves a passing or failing grade is getting ever more complicated. And it requires more patience from net execs, who have to wait a week or two for the DVR playback numbers to roll in.

“At the beginning of the season, we’re looking at a unique and dynamic atmosphere,” said David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corp.

Network number crunchers knew DVR usage was only going to increase, but the rate of growth last week still surprised them. “You know there are going to be year-to-year changes given all the new technologies,” Poltrack said. “For shows in tough competitive environments, those (DVR) numbers are staggering,” he said.

The average DVR lift from viewing done within three days of the initial telecast, or what Nielsen dubs Live-Plus-3 ratings, for Big Four network shows during last week’s premiere onslaught was 26%, up from 20% during the comparable week last year — a “quite significant” jump, according to Poltrack. And even more viewing will take place later in the week after a telecast, boosting the Live-Plus-7 tallies as well.

DVR traction was key for NBC’s “Revolution” (which saw a 1.8 ratings point gain from same-day to L3 last week) and CBS’ “Elementary” (which added 1.1) — the highest gainers among new shows in premiere week. Other big rookie risers were NBC’s “New Normal” and ABC’s “Last Resort” (both gaining 0.8) and CBS’ “Vegas” (0.7).

The “New Normal” boost was a crucial factor in the show earning a full-season pickup earlier this week, along with its Tuesday companion, “Go On,” and “Revolution.” “New Normal” had lagged “Go On” in the same-day numbers but has performed better than the Matthew Perry comedy in DVR numbers through its first few weeks.

Low 3-day playback, on the other hand, can indicate that beyond the same-day viewing that was initially reported, viewers didn’t seek out to record and watch these in any hurry. The rookie shows gaining the least in L3 during premiere week were CBS’ “Made in Jersey” (0.1) and “Partners” (0.2); Fox’s “Mob Doctor” and “Ben & Kate” and NBC’s “Animal Practice” (all 0.3); and NBC’s “Guys With Kids” (0.4).

All of these shows also had low same-day numbers, so the combo of that and low DVR playback interest isn’t a good harbinger for their future.

A key reason for the increase in delayed viewing is that the penetration rate of DVRs has increased overall, to 46% of U.S. homes this fall vs. 42% last year. Among viewers in the 18-49 demo, the rate is 51%. And they have clearly learned how to use their machines to full advantage.

“People are getting more comfortable with the idea of using their DVRs to increase the whole premiere week experience,” Poltrack said. “The DVR is the perfect tool for sampling.”

But DVRs aren’t the only reason for the spike in delayed viewing. According to CBS’ internal tracking, the percentage of viewers who watched a network show via Web streaming last week climbed to 11%, from 4% during last year’s premiere week. Viewing via a cable VOD platform grew to 8%, from 3% last year.

The networks have been grappling with the challenge of measuring all this disparate activity for years. Nielsen is under pressure from the nets to step up its delivery of L3 DVR ratings and L7 ratings that incorporate a full week of playback viewing. The Live-Plus-3 ratings are generally released five days after the initial telecast. Those numbers are most important to the network because advertising guarantees are based on commercial ratings that also incorporate three days of DVR playback viewing — although the so-called C3 ratings for blurbs take even longer to turn around than the program ratings.

The rate of DVR usage is sure to decline at least a bit in the coming months as viewers decide which shows are worth sticking with. And Poltrack also thinks the unusually close races in most Major League Baseball divisions as regular-season play winds up this week may be a factor in juicing DVR activity.

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