Where have all the television viewers gone this fall?

When Nielsen issues results for the first week of the television season on Tuesday, the nets collectively will be looking at some rather steep declines as many returning shows looked sluggish. But based on early DVR playback trends, many of the lost have been found.

Over the weekend the Big Four started touting their impressive gains in Nielsen’s “Live plus 3” measurement, or DVR playback done within the first three days of a telecast. And while DVR usage has gradually grown in recent years, this fall is looking a little different.

National DVR penetration has risen to 46% (from 42% last fall), but the rate among adults 18-49 is now 51%, meaning that more than half of the audience that the networks primarily target can watch their favorite shows on their own timetables. The live plus 3 ratings yardstick is important to the nets because those ratings are the basis of guarantees made to advertisers.

“It’s too early to make too many generalizations, but it looks like what we’re seeing is a continuation of what started happening in the spring,” said Larry Hyams, ABC’s VP of primetime audience analysis. “Up until that point, the differences in the ratings streams were basically flat, but all of a sudden there was a distinctive shift away from same-day to happening later in the seven-day cycle.

“Will it wipe out the four-net deficit declines?” he asked. “Probably not, but it does account for some of the numbers we have seen.”

During premiere week, top returnees like “The Big Bang Theory,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “NCIS” were on par or slightly above last year’s premiere levels — impressive considering the DVR gravity they’re fighting against.

But for many others, including CBS drama “Hawaii Five-0,” ABC drama “Castle” and Fox comedy “New Girl,” low preems last week were perhaps the first clue that this fall would be different. Sure enough, all three showed sizable L3 percentage increases vs. last year, with “Hawaii” going from a 26% rise in L3 last year to 44% this year; “Castle” from 22% to 38%; and “New Girl” to 36% from 25%.

Of course, all three remain below their year-ago opening-week scores, but they will likely gain even more viewers in “Live + 7” (full-week DVR playback) as the viewing cycle gets pushed back.

An exec at one net referred to this season as “a tipping point,” saying that patience is being preached companywide. He also noted that viewing patterns will settle in after a couple of weeks as DVR users add or remove shows from their season pass list.

ABC’s “Modern Family” and NBC’s “Revolution” were easily the biggest gainers in pure 18-49 ratings from same-day to L3, with both rising 1.75 ratings points in adults 18-49. Fox’s “New Girl” was next, rising 1.05 points. This is especially impressive for the Peacock rookie since the ABC comedy has consistently stood as the runaway DVR champ over the last two years.

Last Tuesday, Nielsen reported a week two, same-night 18-49 rating for “Revolution” of 3.45 (or a falloff of about 16% vs. its premiere), which was certainly understandable since it faced premieres of dramas on ABC and CBS. But its 1.75 ratings point surge in the L3 numbers (3.45 to 5.19) means it actually lost only 5% of its premiere audience.

Elsewhere, the gap between NBC’s Tuesday comedies looks smaller when comparing L3 to same-day ratings. The 9 o’clock rookie “Go On” earned a 2.67 same-night rating vs. a 2.00 for 9:30 p.m. entry “The New Normal,” meaning the latter retained 75% of its lead-in.

But with “New Normal” adding more viewers in L3 than “Go On,” “Normal’s” retention is up to a strong 87%.

Top gainers for CBS during premiere week were Monday comedy “2 Broke Girls” (0.88 ratings points, 3.72 to 4.61) and Wednesday drama “Criminal Minds” (0.87, 3.14 to 4.01). New Tuesday drama “Vegas” gained 0.69 to 3.17 while moving above 17 million in total viewers.

NBC wins preem week

On the first Sunday of the season, NBC rolled with “Sunday Night Football” (prelim 8.1/19 in 18-49, 20.5 million viewers overall), whose numbers as usual will rise in the nationals. Big night likely caps a winning premiere week for NBC in adults 18-49, as it is expected to finish slightly ahead of Fox. CBS will win in total viewers.

Elsewhere, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” (3.8/10 in 18-49, 11 million viewers) was down just 5% from its series premiere last fall and was TV’s top entertainment show for the night. It was followed by the timeslot premiere of sophomore drama “Revenge” (3.2/7 in 18-49, 9.5 million viewers overall), which was roughly on par with both the year-ago “Desperate Housewives” premiere in the timeslot and “Revenge’s” own Wednesday series premiere.

Closing out the night, the series premiere of “666 Park Avenue” averaged a 2.2/5 in 18-49 and 7.0 million viewers overall, falling off by 1 full ratings point from its lead-in and well off “Pan Am’s” premiere last year in the demo (3.1/8). It was on par in 18-49 with CBS vet drama “The Mentalist” (2.1/5, 10.8 million).

At Fox, NFL coverage provided a big lead-in for the season preem of “The Simpsons” (3.7/10 in 18-49, 16.7 million), which came within a tick of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” in 18-49 but was off slightly from its year-ago premiere.

The rest of the night was down a little bit more, with “Bob’s Burgers” (2.5/6 in 18-49, 5.4 million viewers overall), “Family Guy” (3.3/8 in 18-49, 6.5 million viewers overall) and “American Dad” (2.5/6 in 18-49, 5.2 million viewers overall) each off by about half a ratings point from the night’s premieres of last year; a year ago, it was “The Cleveland Show” airing at 8:30.

CBS’ “60 Minutes” (1.8/5 in 18-49, 11.5 million) was the night’s most-watched nonsports program. Preems of “The Amazing Race” (2.5/6, 9.7 million) and “The Good Wife” (1.8/4, 9.8 million) were down vs. last year.