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Straight talk for DVR-happy viewers

Audiences have to accept paying for TV with their time or money

In the case of the political class, the elephant in the room involves a blunt conversation about taxes — which most people don’t relish paying — as a tradeoff for providing government services they’re accustomed to receiving and do like.

For TV, it’s the question of advertising, and whether the traditional system can survive if consumers continue to indulge their technology-given right to circumvent ads whenever possible.

The second heart-to-heart talk boils down to a simple query for TV viewers: “If you like these shows, what are you willing to give up to keep them viable: Time or money?”

One of the most interesting wrinkles in analyzing the new fall TV season has been the boost networks are seeing thanks to DVR viewing. Ratings increase more than 20% for many shows (the percentages sometimes appear inflated because the base was so low) once three-day averages are included. The DVR bump is more pronounced than it was a year ago, reflecting higher penetration of the devices and more usage.

Moreover, live-plus-three-day gains are generally higher percentage-wise among key demographics — those most important to advertisers. This seems logical, since younger adults are presumably more fluent in time-shifting strategies than, say, their grandparents, who tend to watch more.

That people are still finding and sampling new shows is, of course, welcome news for broadcasters. Yet while networks fought hard to win concessions from media buyers about counting time-shifted viewing when selling spots, the growth in DVR-mediated consumption doesn’t bode well for an ad-supported model, given how easy it is — even without something like Dish’s ad-skipping Auto Hop function, which triggered outrage among broadcasters — to zap past commercials.

Yes, networks can point to counterintuitive research that shows viewers still see a surprising number of ads, even when watching on a delayed basis. According to this argument, ordinary people are less zap-happy than media-saturated critics, yielding headlines like “Do Americans Watch More DVR’d Commercials Than You Think?”

Even if true, this argument is somewhat self-defeating. If your audience is too inert, ignorant or indifferent to realize they can watch an episode of “The Good Wife” in roughly 43 minutes by excising all the clutter, it’s questionable whether they’re a particularly desirable bunch at which to target upscale products in the first place.

Anecdotally, on Sunday night I efficiently sped through ABC’s trio of scripted one-hour dramas in about 140 minutes. In the course of that span I saw innumerable bumper promos for “Nashville” — hard to miss or avoid those — and one spot for DreamWorks’ upcoming movie “Rise of the Guardians.” That’s it.

The Obama campaign has spoken of “economic patriotism,” trying to persuade voters (particularly those in upper-income brackets) to accept anteing up, tax-wise. Networks may need to embrace a similar strategy — advocating “programming pragmatism,” perhaps — to reinforce the idea that TV fans can’t expect a completely free ride.

Just as the government needs tax revenues to function, those who want “free” TV programs must pay the freight too, either by shelling out cash directly — as they do for Showtime or HBO — or enduring commercials. And while networks remain understandably fretful about “unintended consequences to messing with the TV ecosystem,” as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, it’s only a question of what form the messing will take.

The newspaper industry clearly suffered for being slow about prodding customers to understand the shifting realities assailing its business model. While TV is better situated to cash in on digital and on-demand technology, migrating consumption to the digital realm is fraught with peril as well, and efforts to thwart ad-skipping methods in that space will almost certainly face their own challenges.

As noted, Hollywood and Washington have been in lockstep when it comes to balking at initiating these uncomfortable conversations; instead, the tendency is to delay, hoping the bill finally comes due on some other poor slob’s watch.

Think of it as another form of delaying — in this case, maybe the inevitable.

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