There's a new No. 1 network in primetime, and no, it's not NBC. Or CBS. Or any of the traditional networks. If the digital video recorder were a network — with you, the viewer, as chief programmer — it would rank as tops among total viewers and in the key young-adult demographics.
For example, on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 10 pm, CBS' new drama Vegas was No. 1 with adults 18-49, attracting 3.4 million viewers in that demo, followed by ABC's Private Practice (2.5 million) and NBC's Parenthood (2.4 million). But at that same time, 8 million viewers in the demo were watching something else on their DVRs — which means that an imaginary "DVR Network" would actually be No. 1 in that time slot.
DVR usage has jumped so much — up 30 percent compared to just a year ago — that it's now making a real impact on TV ratings. That's good news for many of your favorite TV shows, which are much more likely to survive if they have a bigger audience than first thought. It's also heartening to network executives, who were dismayed by this fall's initially dismal prime-time results. In fact, viewers are still there, they're just watching TV on their own schedule. Hawaii Five-0, for example, premiered to a disappointing 8.1 million viewers, but improved to 10.6 million after three days of DVR viewing.
"Our shows are really popular, and to think they suddenly lost their popularity seemed hard to believe," says CBS senior executive vice president Kelly Kahl. "We started getting the delayed numbers and it made more sense." Kahl says that time-shifted viewing is forcing network execs to take a breath and wait a beat before making too many snap judgments. (Fox often cites the DVR as one reason it kept Fringe alive.) But in many cases, a dud's just a dud. CBS canceled Made in Jersey after just two episodes because it was clear, DVR or no DVR, that audiences weren't interested in the show.
All that time shifting is going on as viewers sift through even more programming options. Cable networks are now airing some of their marquee series in the fall opposite the new network fare — AMC's The Walking Dead is now the No. 1 scripted show on TV among adults 18-49, surpassed only by football. And the NFL now showcases three major games in primetime throughout the week. Ironically, viewers are watching more shows on a time-shifted basis even as social media makes it tougher to avoid spoilers.
"There's a lot of new product being thrown at people, [who] have their old favorites and also want to see new shows," Kahl says. "A lot of stuff is piling up on their DVR... Certainly premiere week used to be the exclusive domain of the networks, and that's not the case any more."
The situation will settle down as the season goes on and viewers decide which shows to watch live. But with 45 percent of homes now equipped with DVRs, network execs who once feared the DVR's commercial-zapping technology are now embracing it. "We do love the DVR," Kahl says. "It allows people to watch more TV."
Ultimately, the ratings that really matter actually measure the viewership of commercials, including three days of DVR lift (referred to as "C3" ratings in the industry). Even those ratings see a bit of lift because, believe it or not, a portion of DVR viewers do indeed still watch the commercials.
Jeff Bader, NBC Entertainment's president of program planning, strategy and research, says that DVRs are just a portion of a much larger story about how viewers have altered the way they watch TV. "DVRs are just one way people are time shifting now," he notes, pointing to iTunes, Hulu, video on demand and streaming options.
That means the networks will have to continue to rethink how they make money off those changing viewing habits, as well as schedule and promote shows. The networks are now competing with time-shifted viewing as much as they are against traditional rivals.|
In the case of scheduling, lead-ins still matter (NBC's Revolution benefits from The Voice), but the DVR is nonetheless making it tougher to count on viewers to stick around from one show to the next. And marketing may have to adjust to the fact that viewers are delaying their viewing, perhaps forcing networks to promo shows that are further into the future.
"We're going to have to be open to changes," says Kahl. "But the one thing that's never going to change is, you have to put on shows that people want to watch, be it live or delayed. The DVR is not going to help a bad show."
For the week of Sept. 24 (TV's fall premiere week), here's how the four networks stacked up against the DVR in average total viewers: DVR (11.3 million); CBS (10.7 million), NBC (8.7 million), Fox (5.9 million).
DVR playback was No. 1 with viewers 18-49 in 32 out of 44 half-hours the week of Sept. 24. Here are a few sample time slots from the week:
Monday, Sept. 24, 9 pm: DVR (6.3 million); The Voice (6.1 million); 2 Broke Girls (4.7 million); Dancing With The Stars (3.3 million); The Mob Doctor (1.6 million).
Tuesday, Sept. 25, 9 pm: DVR (7.5 million); NCIS: Los Angeles (4.4 million); New Girl (3.5 million); Go On (3.5 million); Dancing With The Stars: Results (3 million).
Wednesday, Sept. 26, 9 pm: DVR (7.2 million); Modern Family (7.1 million); The X Factor (4.6 million); Criminal Minds (4 million); Law & Order: SVU (2.3 million).
Thursday, Sept. 27, 9 pm: DVR (6.8 million); Grey's Anatomy (5.4 million); Person of Interest (3.7 million); Glee (3.2 million); The Office (2.7 million).
Friday, Sept. 28, 10 pm: DVR (5.9 million); Blue Bloods (1.9 million); 20/20 (1.6 million); Dateline (1.6 million).
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