Why DVR Won't Save Our Favourite Shows

I’m on record as being a skeptic of the idea that DVR numbers — and online numbers, and all the other people not watching TV shows when they air — will save low-rated shows from being canceled. And here’s a piece of news that helps explain why I’m skeptical: the show that benefits the most from DVR recording is Hawaii Five-0. It turns out that many of the male viewers who are the new show’s target audience are choosing to watch Monday Night Football instead, and recording the adventures of Not-Jack-Lord and his Elite Team™ to watch later. Shows that get DVR’d a lot are often the older-skewing shows — The Mentalist, Blue Bloods — because they often conflict with sporting events or other things that its core audience prefers to watch first. There are some “younger” shows that have great DVR totals, like the genuine juggernaut that Modern Family has become, and there’s at least one show that may genuinely be kept on the air by the DVR: Fringe, which looks like a failure in the ratings but looks better when you factor in its abnormally high DVR viewership. But overall, I don’t think we’re going to see the new world a lot of people are hoping for, where New Media calls the dinosaur Nielsen ratings into question and elevates seemingly little-watched shows into big hits. The more likely impact is at the margins: Hawaii Five-0, which is a bit of a disappointment considering how heavily the network has hyped it (in my opinion, because the lead is a bore), looks better when the high DVR viewership is factored in.

Even there, though, you have to ask what the monetary value of DVR or online viewing is, and there I don’t have an answer. As this article explains, networks and advertisers are trying to figure out how to factor in all the non-traditional viewership. But the question for advertisers is never just how many people watch a show, but how many people watch who are likely to see their commercials and buy their stuff? That is, after all, why people under 18 and over 50 don’t count; and if advertisers are right to place less value on people outside of a certain age range, they may also be right to place less value on people who don’t watch “live.” (You could even envision a time when advertisers worry less about the age of the viewers and more about the groups that are most likely to watch live, or watch the commercials when they do DVR a show — these categories may not break down as neatly as the 18-49 or 25-54 categories.) In other words, an advertiser could quite plausibly say that he or she doesn’t want to pay extra for people who aren’t watching their ads. Though of course many people record a program and still watch the ads — and why not? the shows were made to be viewed with commercial interruptions, and they often work better that way — and people who theoretically watch commercials may actually be just going to the fridge, as per tradition. Nothing’s clear-cut when it comes to figuring out the ability of TV to sell us stuff we don’t really need.

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