Viewers embrace NBC's time-delayed coverage

Occasionally, media types — especially those inclined to be part of every conversation, in real time, via social media — forget the corollary, which involves delayed gratification, and the benefit of consuming media on your own timetable.

Among stories coming out of the London Olympics was the rather myopic debate about whether NBC’s time-delayed-for-primetime Games could still work in today’s digital age. Record ratings provide one obvious endorsement of the strategy, which did little to mollify those who — ignoring that every previous Olympics has been broadcast this way — asserted the network was doing its audience a disservice by leaving them to the whims of online spoilers.

What such critics overlook is how comfortable the audience has become with consuming media at their own pace, on their own terms. The underlying assumption in social media is that everyone yearns to participate in an instant feedback loop. But the truth is that sophisticated viewers make a practiced point of avoiding that loop — a trend even more pronounced in the premium space, where people actually pay for the product.

Obviously, it’s well known that DVR viewing has transformed how people consume television, even if the broadcast model has held together longer than many had imagined. (Fortunately for the networks, not everyone watches TV with the same advertising-phobic hyperactivity practiced by elite media consumers and early adopters, who squeeze every spare minute they can out of the viewing process.)

Delayed viewing is actually far more prevalent on pay channels like HBO and Showtime, which — unburdened by concerns regarding advertisers worried about zapping — care only about subscribers finding value in their programming, whenever they choose to watch it.

According to Nielsen data, the initial Sunday-night premiere and encore telecast of such popular HBO series as “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” accounts for only 25% to 30% of the program’s viewership, including encore showings, delayed DVR consumption and on-demand. A similar pattern prevails on Showtime, where roughly three-quarters of viewing for its original programs takes place after the premiere, with only slightly lower averages for such serialized addictions as “Dexter” and “Homeland.”

Many journalists who cover media often seem oblivious to this reality. They make an assumption people consume TV the same way they do — feeling compelled to see HBO’s “The Newsroom” or “Girls” the moment they air, the better to fire snarky comments into the Twittersphere. Plenty publish near-instant show recaps, and critics like the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley have irked producers by discussing key plot points shortly after programs air, without even a cursory warning.

To this, there’s a not particularly convincing rejoinder: Let the reader beware (a self-defeating notion if you want to keep traffic up and patrons coming back).

Data like the figures cited above, though, demonstrate the audience has its own idea about when to watch. And the fact that so many premium-TV subscribers — the kind of people any ad-driven publication would presumably like to reach — don’t feel obligated to clear their DVR lineup in the first 24 hours a show’s on is a good reminder of the myriad ways the media world is evolving.

Granted, the Olympics follow a slightly different formula, inasmuch as NBC — as opposed to the audience — calls the shots on when delayed fare is available. The underlying premise, however, is really the same: Although the information regarding what happened (that is, who won) is already out there careering around cyberspace, the audience still waits hours to watch.

By that measure, the London Games have helped illustrate how much (or how little) the media village has changed.

One popular image of modern media consumption is instant gratification — downloading or streaming what you want, whenever you want it.

Representatives for these networks cite such behavior to assert that initial ratings paint an incomplete picture of each program’s popularity, with a series like “True Blood” or “Nurse Jackie” more than tripling its audience over the course of a week. And since the ultimate goal is keeping subscribers satisfied, when they eat is less important than ensuring they like what’s on the menu.

As for the media, they have also delivered a rather pointed message — namely, that consumers are quite accomplished at tuning you out until they’re ready to tune in.

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