If They Build It, Will You Come?

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How many people actually watch network TV anymore? Last week’s highest rated network show, Dancing with the Stars (really, America?), had a little over 19.6 million viewers. In the same October week five years ago, CSI: The Early Years drew almost 30.7 million viewers. That’s a loss of more than 22 million eyeballs attached to 11 million viewers, folks. The DVR Revolution is wreaking havoc on network TV ratings. And those of us who have long screeched about the television advertising business model are smugly assuming that said model will implode entirely under the weight of an entire nation fast-forwarding past the goose that lays the golden egg. And by “goose that lays the golden egg,” I of course mean the Gilbert Gottfried-voiced duck in those omnipresent Aflac commercials. But is that goose…er, duck…actually cooked?

With DVR usage more than doubling between last year’s fall season and this year’s, one out of every five TV-viewing households in the U.S. now has the capability to shift their viewing with the greatest of ease. And the Nielsen ratings are trying to accommodate—in addition to their “regular” ratings, they are now providing ratings that incorporate both live viewings and viewings that take place within three and seven days of the original airing. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve come up with the C3 ratings, which for the first time are able to count viewership of the actual commercials within three days of airing. And what do those tell us?

You’re still watching commercials.

Granted, I’m not sure the networks or advertisers are reading the data quite the same way I am, because they have more to lose if anyone stops watching ads. Although C3 ratings for the first week of the new fall season suggest little overall difference between the program ratings and the commercial ratings, there is a lot of disagreement on the level of trauma that “little difference” is going to inflict on the industry. The most dire piece of evidence for the “sky is falling” crowd–that commercial ratings are 16% lower for the five networks in the 18-49 age range than program ratings are, for example–still implies that what is to me a ginormous number of people are watching the commercials. And get this–45% of people watching on DVRs are still watching commercials. They can skip them with the press of the button, and almost half are still watching the ads.

I don’t think anyone has any idea why we’re doing it—is it that people are so conditioned to using commercial breaks for mini-errands–letting the dog out; checking the kids’ backpacks–that they still use commercial time for these tasks even when watching recorded programs? Is it that recent adapters haven’t yet figured out they can skip the commercials? Is it that if you build it, they will come–if you make a charming or shocking or witty commercial, people will stop and watch it? I know I rewound the trusty TiVo several times while watching the recent Virgina-Maryland game, just to make the turtle roar.

So come on, people–solve the mystery; crack the code; fear the turtle: can the networks breathe a sigh of relief? If they build a better mousetrap…er, ad, will you come to them? Why are you still watching commercials?

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2 thoughts on “If They Build It, Will You Come?

  1. I don’t buy the “45% don’t fast forward through commercials” stat though it’s a nice soundbite for Les Moonves.

    I’d guesstimate that # to be 15% or less. It’s just a guess based on the available info about how many people don’t watch the the commercials when they are watching live, coupled with known DVR viewing vs. the overall C3 comparisons to live viewing.

    From that view, it’s pretty clear people fast forward through commercials on their DVRs the vast majority of the time.

    Skipping vs. fast-forwarding will someday be a huge discussion. For now I think the vast majority of DVR users have not programmed their remote with a 30 second skip button and most DVR remotes do not come with a skip button. Tivo, Comcast, etc allow you to reprogram your remote to do it, but most people use what is given them.

  2. Your 15% estimate seems *much* more reasonable to me (and may allow me to sleep at night, as wondering why the heck that number would be so high is the kind thing that keeps me awake long past my bedtime). As you point out, though, there is so little we know about the details of how people use this technology that even our best guesses come from other best guesses. Until we get all that sorted out, I’m kind of excited to sit on the sidelines and see where networks/advertisers decide to jump.

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