By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
The increasing usage of digital video recorders, which easily allow
viewers to postpone watching their favorite shows, has vastly
complicated the math of TV ratings, new Nielsen data show.
And it explains how ABC's Modern Family
ultimately eclipsed Fox's American Idol
among key young-adult audiences.
In final season rankings out Monday (Nielsen's time-shifted rankings are delayed by about two weeks), Family, already one of TV's top shows, added an average of nearly 5 million viewers in the seven days after new Wednesday episodes aired against Idol. That's the biggest gain for any series, for a total of 16.7 million viewers.
Among viewers ages 18 to 49, the comedy jumped 48% when factoring in delayed viewing, while Idol's performance show gained just 17%.
But viewers rarely delay reality shows, news, awards telecasts and sports programming by more than a day. Sitcoms and dramas are most prone to procrastination, accounting for 29 of the top 30 gainers.
Nielsen says 44% of homes now have DVRs, and though the adoption rate has slowed recently, those who have the devices are using them more often. Just 47% of viewing by young-adult DVR users was live, down from 61% four years earlier.
That's made delayed viewing a bigger piece of the total ratings puzzle, and left networks more patient with seemingly low-rated shows. The audience for Fox's Friday sci-fi drama Fringe, for example, surged 55% (and a stunning 73% among young adults) once viewing up to six days later was factored in.
In general, the most popular shows got the biggest net lift, while on a percentage basis, genre shows airing on low-rated Fridays got the biggest bump, along with NBC's Up All Night and Fox's canceled House and Alcatraz.
"DVRs continue to play a more important role" in overall viewing, says ABC research chief Charles Kennedy, who says networks face "a battle between urgency and convenience" for viewers. Programmers want appointment viewing that demands to be seen right away, but DVRs allow folks to keep up with shows they might otherwise not see at all.
What's suffering at the hands of the DVR is old-fashioned channel surfing, in which viewers might stumble upon an obscure show or a smaller cable network. If the first option is appointment viewing, "option No. 2 is what I have on my DVR," says Sam Armando of Chicago ad firm SMGx. Networks that depend on chance discovery "are starting to suffer a bit."