Nielsen Data Shows DVRs Are Great, and Awful, for Broadcast TV

Last Updated Oct 14, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

As followers of Nielsen's attempts to grapple with new technology know, the TV ratings company has expanded what it measures in recent TV seasons to include at least several days worth of DVR viewing, to create a more accurate picture of how many people are really watching TV shows, and when they are watching. Now, the first set of weekly ratings for this season that also include seven days of DVR viewing are in, and the results show what a thorny issue the DVR is becoming for TV, particularly broadcast TV, which relies solely on advertising for revenue.

The great news? When you add in time-shifted viewing via DVR, it becomes clear that the audiences for a number of series are substantially bigger than previously thought. The awful news? The other key benefit of a DVR is its ability to skip the commercials. Therefore, the more people are watching a show on DVR, the less impact the commercials originally bought for that show will have on the total audience. Ouch.

Here are some stats, with a tip of the hat to my friends at Mediaweek, who published a full chart of the ten primetime broadcast shows* that had the most DVR viewers last week:

  • Among the shows listed, the percentage of people who watched the programming via DVR ranged from 9 percent (CBS' NCIS) to 34 percent (Fox's "Fringe" which had by far the least viewers overall at 7.3 million).
  • Overall, the average percentage of time-shifted viewing among these series is 17.2 percent (or 16.1 percent if the two outliers above are thrown out).
  • The show that gets the most DVR viewing is ABC's "Grey's Anatomy", with 2.97 million viewers; the show with the least is Fox's "Bones" with 1.87 million.
No matter how you slice it, DVR viewing is becoming a more important factor, particularly for one-hour dramas. Every show on Mediaweek's list falls into that category. If you're a ratings wonk, this demonstrates that perhaps these shows have a greater hold on the population than we thought. To see a 17 percent gain in overall viewers because of time-shifting behavior is huge.

But the problem, as I said up above, is that these viewers are also skipping the commercials. According to a study of its subscribers released by TiVo last month, 73 percent of the audience for TV dramas skips the commercials, and by and large, the ad-skipping behavior increases with the most popular shows because viewers are so wrapped up in them.

This has the potential to create a terrible problem for the broadcast nets. DVR penetration and ad-skipping behavior is still increasing, and so the value of even the most popular shows to advertisers can only diminish. The answer seems to be an ad model change, if broadcast TV, DVR makers and advertisers have the temerity to try it. The 15-second pre-roll before watching online video is starting to sound pretty good.

*The series that made the top ten are, in descending order: Grey's Anatomy, The Mentalist (CBS); House (Fox); CSI (CBS); FlashForward (ABC); Fringe; NCIS; Criminal Minds (CBS); CSI: Miami (CBS); Bones (Fox).

Previous coverage of DVRs at BNET Media: