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.

More TV

  • Mipcom Wrap: The Shows, News, Trends

    Mipcom Wrap: The Shows, News, Trends and Talking Points in Cannes

    Mipcom remains the biggest international TV get-together of the year, and that makes Cannes in October the place where the industry takes stock. How programming is made, bought and sold is changing, as is the array of platforms that carry content. Here are takeaways from Mipcom 2019. Good Buzz – but No Title Dominates No [...]

  • Amazon Orders ‘All or Nothing: Tottenham

    Amazon Orders ‘All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur’ Soccer Doc Series

    Amazon has greenlit a new “All or Nothing” sports documentary series, this time following London-based soccer team Tottenham Hotspur. “All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur” will follow a year in the life of the team, charting the ongoing 2019-20 season. The squad made it to the final of the European Champions League last year, losing to [...]

  • Steve Kornacki

    Steve Kornacki, Chris Matthews Stand at Center of New NBC News Podcasts

    After vowing to press ahead more directly into the world of podcasts, NBC News is readying the launch of three additional audio shows centered around politics. “Article II” will help listeners understand the impeachment process. The program, new episodes of which are slated to debut Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as people head for their evening [...]


    The Mediapro Studio, America TV Strike Three Series Co-production Alliance

    Spanish TV giant The Mediapro Studio has inked a three-year collaboration deal with Argentine broadcaster America TV, aimed at developing, producing and distributing original content. The agreement will see the production of three series to be distributed in the global market, the companies said Thursday in a statement. No details of the projects were revealed. [...]

  • Trentino Leads By Example With Eco-Friendly

    Trentino Film Commission Leads By Example With Eco-Friendly Program T-Green

    In 2015, Luca Ferrario set out to lead by example. Though many European commissions already offered sustainability programs, none, he felt, did so in ways that could flourish in his own back yard. “Most of my colleagues offered guidelines to follow, only those were not enough, at least not in Italy,” says Ferrario, who is [...]

  • American Son review

    TV News Roundup: Netflix Releases 'American Son' Trailer

    In today’s TV news roundup, Netflix released the trailer for “American Son” starring Kerry Washington and first looks at Dolly Parton’s new anthology series, “Heartstrings.” FIRST LOOKS Netflix has released the trailer for “American Son,” which premieres Nov. 1 on the streaming service. Directed by Tony award-winner Kenny Leon, the film is based on the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content