The New DVR Ratings Surge: Why Your Playback Habits Matter (and Why They Don't)

A Revolution is happening this TV season, and not only Monday nights on NBC.

With DVR penetration now at 46 percent of U.S. homes and usage up some 30 percent versus just a year ago, delayed playback is boosting ratings and viewership tallies by sometimes staggering amounts. “The great thing about the DVR is you’re allowed to fit more TV into your schedule,” notes Andy Kubitz, ABC’s EVP of Program Planning and Scheduling. “More people are watching more television.”

The age-old rub, however, is that while Live+7 data (which accounts for everyone who hit Play on a recording within a week) more accurately reflects a program’s cumulative performance, it’s the Live+3 numbers — or more specifically the “C3” rating that tracks commercial viewership within those three days — that advertisers care about. So if you’re a Nielsen household that’s not indulging in Scandal until, say, Monday, your vote for President Fitzgerald Grant is, frankly, a lost one.

Make no mistake, Live+7 numbers do impress. Take the aforementioned Revolution, which by any measure has proven to be a success for NBC — and as such earned a full-season order even before all of the DVR data came in on its premiere. Based on the Live+7 report for the week of Sept. 24 (aka Premiere Week for most everyone else), the adventure drama’s numbers surged 66 percent in the coveted 18-49 demo (and 53 percent in total audience). Likewise, Grimm grew an astounding 86 percent in the demo, while Parenthood, which last year saw a 39-percent bump for its opener, this time around got a beefy 52-percent boost. (Throw in a sound Voice and burly Sunday Night Football, and the Peacock gets to tout the new season’s first three weekly demo wins. “The Revolution numbers are really spectacular,” says Jeff Bader, NBC’s President of Program Planning, “but what’s really dazzling me is the fact that we just won the third week of the season, by a fair margin.”)

Over at ABC, the Modern Family and Castle premieres each rose more than 40 percent in the demo with Live+7 playback. CBS’ Big Bang Theory, Criminal Minds and Person of Interest all hovered around the 40 percent mark, while Elementary‘s series debut jumped 45 percent. The season openers for Fox’s Glee and Fringe grew 63 and 64 percent, and even Bones — now in its eight season — strengthened by 43 percent.

Instances such as the above make for noisy press releases, but the networks still are at a loss making them count where it matters: the bottom line. So if not in the name of ad rates, what value do Live+7 numbers carry? “If you take the sales equation out of it, it’s a real measuring stick for how popular your shows are,” says Kelly Kahl, Senior EVP for CBS Primetime. Or as NBC’s Bader puts it: “[Live+7] is not the ‘potential’ audience; that is the audience.”

According to Kahl — whose network is enjoying the largest average gain in total audience, 2 million viewers, from Live+7 — “the real sea change” is the quantity and variety of programs now netting nifty bumps. “A lot of solid performers, the ‘workhorse shows,’ are getting big lifts,” he notes.

New shows face a unique challenge in eliciting DVR love and the juiced numbers that come with it, in part because of the recording unit’s “season pass” functionality. Simply said, it’s possible that you already have a couple of favorites being recorded every Tuesday at 9:30; in such a scenario, a newbie like The Mindy Project has trouble claiming space. “We’re at the point where you have established shows going up against each other,” says Dan Harrison, Fox’s EVP of Strategic Program Planning, “and one of those shows may not be recorded if your [DVR] is limited to two streams.” Also, Harrison points out, “If you saw a promo for Mindy three weeks before it premiered, in some systems it’s virtually impossible to set up a season pass.”

But in cases where a show does land on a DVR but isn’t getting cued up quickly enough, the challenge for the networks is to close that Live+7 window. “People stack things on their DVRs and watch in order of interest,” says ABC’s Kubitz, “so what we need to do is be more interesting [a choice], so that we rise to the top of that queue.” Because right now and for the foreseeable future, playback on Days 4 through 7 simply isn’t fattening anyone’s wallets. “C3 is the bargain we struck today,” says Harrison, “and it was an extensive dance between the networks and ad agencies to even get that [versus Live+Same Day] accepted as a currency.”

The above leads to a question you may have often wondered: Why is that? In a fantasy scenario where Joe Viewer isn’t “zapping” commercials while catching up on Hawaii Five-0 on a lazy Saturday, why is his Day 4 playback of zero value to the ad community? “Clearly sellers want to move to C7 because they stand a better chance of delivering the viewers they guaranteed,” says veteran media analyst Shari Anne Brill. “But for those advertisers with time-sensitive messages” — think film studios touting an imminent release, or a retailer hawking a short-term sale — “C7 may not be acceptable.”

That said, the reality is that most ads you see do not come with any such ticking clock. So the hope is that one day the two sides, seller and buyer, can revisit the arrangement. “If we know that they’re placing the same ad for a six-week flight, why should they only pay for C3?” argues NBC’s Bader. Adds ABC’s Kubitz: “If this trend continues, it’s a discussion to have with Madison Avenue, coming up with a currency that both we and them can live with.”

Until then, the networks are doing their best to monetize Live+7 in what little ways they can, by brokering side deals that swap in new ads for VOD playback and online streams. That supplemental income, however, “is not hugely significant,” says one insider, “and it’s not proportionate to the viewing.”

While Live+7 numbers may not boost a network’s bottom line, could they at least help tip the scale when pondering a back-9 order for a freshman show, or come renewal time in the spring? “People sometimes think you’re looking at ‘a’ number — that if the 18-49 number is this, it gets picked up — but there are a ton of factors,” CBS’ Kahl stresses. Besides, the Live+7 adjustments almost always only “make the winners bigger winners and the losers bigger losers” rather than rejigger the rankings, Fox’s Harrison notes. (Revolution, again, is one of the exceptions, going from Premiere Week’s No. 4 drama to trailing only Grey’s Anatomy once DVR playback is folded in).

Looking at the long game, Kahl says the cumulative audience represented by Live+7 has the potential to help when shopping a series for syndication, or when selling to international markets. “Twenty-three million people watching [a show like NCIS] is something we can take out into the market,” he says. “It shows the value of these shows long-term.”

But no incremental DVR data can salvage a series that simply failed to click with viewers out of the gate. “At some point, your show has to fight for itself,” says Kahl. “What doesn’t change in all of this is that if you don’t have good shows, no one is going to record it, no one is going to VOD it…. No one is going to show up.”

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  1. Symce says:

    Interesting read, I do wonder if that data’s readily available somewhere? For raw statistics and comparison sake. Just curious :)

  2. Ryan M says:

    Live + 3 and C3 are two different things C3 is just people who watch the commercials while L3 is anyone who watches within 3 days

    • Lee says:

      That is correct. People who fast forward through commercials in playback are not counted in the C3 ratings. Live + 3 is a different metric and advertisers do NOT pay for it.

      • John says:

        Why would anyone NOT fast forward through the commercials when they DVR something? I don’t watch anything live anymore…just so I can skip the commercials. PS: With today’s technology, when is the outdated Nielsen ratings system going to be replaced? I would think advertisers who spend/waste stupid amounts of money on ads would want to know the actual number of viewers…not just an estimate.

        • Elyse says:

          i have to be up at 5am every day so there are only a few shows i actually watch live (usually 8pm showings sometimes 9pm if its a show i LOVE) but i don’t have a nielson box so i don’t feel guilty about not watching things live. my viewing doesn’t count anyways!

        • J2 says:

          because it would be a gross invasion of privacy.

        • Jeff says:

          Advertisers don’t care about the number of viewers…they care about the number of viewers who WATCH THE ADDS. So even if they could get 100%, highly accurate counts of the exact number of people who watch on DVR they wouldn’t care.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      Yes, this has been clarified.

    • Mary says:

      Thank you for explaining that. I felt my head spinning trying to follow what Matt was talking about.

  3. Sometimes I queue 5 shows before watching all. I like marathons.

  4. Rachel says:

    Thanks for the info, I’ve been wondering how my (constant) DVR playback is or isn’t being counted.

    • Reality.Bites says:

      If you’re not a Neilsen family nothing you watch or don’t watch counts at all.

      • Berry Cherry says:

        The only DVR users who don’t skip the ads, are Nielsen viewers who want to get credit for their show, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to count same day or C3 in the ratins at all.

  5. John says:

    Great article! Very good details on +3 vs +7.

  6. Nicole says:

    Interesting article. I don’t think I ever watch live. I’ve got two kids, I watch shows when they are in bed or napping. And I do watch in order of my interest level in a show (or my interest level in a preview for the new week), not necessarily what I need to catch up on from the day before.

  7. JDuro says:

    LOL. They need to bump it up to DVR+21 for my viewing habits to counts in the ratings.

  8. mco says:

    Very interesting read, well written and well explain, thank you Matt;
    On the topic, my understanding is that Live + 7, or even live +3 count mostly for show which are “one the bubble”. A big performer like NCIS doesn’t need it to be renewed. However a show like Hawai F-0 this year could really benefit from it.
    Also, bottom line is “Your show has to be the best, the more interesting (or one who as a big buzz”. And there’s nothing new on that. The only new thing could be that fans and reviewers could have more of an impact. A big reaction on social media – let say twitter – after an episode could draw attention to it and attract new people on this Live+ 3 or live + 7 window.
    Call me pessimistic or cynical but I can already see network executives asking showrunners for bigger and more shockings twists and plots, to the point it become way other the top and that any show could “jump the shark” very faster than now.

  9. Boiler says:

    This is a great write up and something I have been hoping to see. There has to be some way to make money off DVR shows. I think alot of the so called reality shows have best ratings initially because they are “live”. How do they stack up in +3 or +7? Frankly I don’t mind the short commercials on shows I watch on network websites. Is there a way to work with cable companies to put a small ad on screen. They do this for some sports events

    • Kristina says:

      This. I don’t mind short commercials. What I do mind, is having 22 minutes of commercials thrown at me when I’m trying to watch a damn TV show.

  10. JC says:

    This is a great article. Unfortunately, it won’t stop some people from complaining “My favorite show gets great DVR numbers. How could the network cancel it?!?”

  11. Derek says:

    When will Arrow’s +7 data for the premiere be available?

    • David says:

      The Live+7 numbers for premiere week (Sept. 24-30) were just released on Monday, so probably somewhere around Oct. 29.

  12. the girl says:

    Question: A lot of ABC & NBC shows are available On Demand the day after they air. Even Fox is making this happen with certain shows, where in the past they waited 8 days before posting an episode. Do the On Demand playbacks get counted in ratings? Same question for online viewing via network website, like or I don’t use my DVR at all and I rely very heavily on On Demand and online viewing. I do try to consider that I should watch my favorite shows live, but I’ve always wondered if the other options are counted towards a show’s viability.

    • eridapo says:

      On-demand cable viewing doesn’t count toward the ratings totals, either because they don’t have ads at all, or because the ads shown differ from the ones shown during initial broadcast

      To be counted for ratings a program must have the same commercials as the live broadcast. If it doesn’t, it is not counted.

      OnDemand viewing information is provided to the networks by the Cable services under a different report.

      • SK says:

        Actually, what I noticed is that On Demand shows on NBC, Fox or ABC do not allow you to fast forward through the commercials. I’ve noticed also that it seems like it’s the same commercial on NBC as it is live because they even advertise the show after the show I’m watching (example “Next on Dateline” while watching Grimm on demand). Only CBS allows you to fast forward through the commercials. So I wonder if the NBC On Demand viewing counts?

  13. Donna says:

    Question Matt – Do non-Nielsen DVRs even get counted? I’m not understanding how they can be because how on earth would they capture the demographic information (age, gender) for the viewer from random DVRs? Can you clarify if ALL DVRs count or is it still limited to those with Nielsen boxes? Sorry if its a dumb question!

    • mco says:

      There’s no dumb questions only dums answ”trs” (one of my HS teacher). Best lesson I was told. Never been afraid to ask after that

  14. Pia says:

    “Revolution, again, is one of the exceptions, going from Premiere Week’s No. 4 drama to trailing only Grey’s Anatomy once DVR playback is folded in.”

    Meaningless unless we know where Grey’s is ranked.

  15. Donna says:

    Apologies. Clearly I need some afternoon coffee as my reading comprehension is at an all time low since you specify “So if you’re a Nielsen household that’s not indulging”. I’ll go sit in the corner now.

  16. qwer987 says:

    In reading comments on articles like this, one would have to conclude that nobody believes in statistics. A discipline that has its margins of errors, granted but not utter rubbish.

  17. amazz says:

    How do you know if you are a Nielsen household? And what is Nielsen?

    • JC says:

      If you have to ask, then you’re not a Nielsen household. Nielsen is the company that measures the TV ratings and sells that information to all of the networks.

  18. Keren says:

    Yay Grimm!! Thanks for this article TVLine!

  19. Blake says:

    If advertisers want to make sure that their products are being seen by viewers, and that they are not being fast-forwarded over, they need to take a page from Psych about advertising. Psych has product placements sprinkled throughout the episodes. Just today, beginning season 6 over on DVD, Skittles, Snyder’s Pretzels, and Sprite Zero were in the season premiere. This is one way a show can still manage to come back year after year, with keeping the advertisers happy. Why don’t more shows just include a couple small product placements?

    • Kristina says:

      I’m all for that, personally, as long as it’s not annoying like the ones they tried to do on Bones. Burn Notice is another show that has done this pretty well (maybe it’s a USA thing?), with Hyundai. Much rather that than commercial breaks every 2 minutes (or at least that’s what it feels like).

      • Robin says:

        White Collar does it to with some kind of car, and Hawaii5-o too. Another show that used to do product placements a lot was One Tree Hill. I think it should only be done if it makes sense…you dont want it to seem like out out place.

      • Keren says:

        Baywatch advertised Nair and Head & Shoulders; every time a lifeguard opened a locker you would see the products

    • Marz says:

      Don’t forget Subway and Chuck.

    • Jeff says:

      Because nothing ruins a show quicker than watching some poor actor try to cram a product into the storyline. It is incredibly obvious to everyone what is happening (and the poor actors look so uncomfortable and ashamed) and it takes me right out of the story.

  20. Forwarddad says:

    Because product placement isn’t cheap and hard to measure I imagine.

  21. Kristina says:

    Here’s the thing: I don’t mind commercials, really. Some of them are interesting, and I’d be happy to watch them…if there weren’t 22 FREAKING MINUTES of them per hour of tv. Give me a TV show with 5 or 10 minutes of commercials, I’ll happily watch every one. But I refuse to watch live TV anymore because it has just gotten ridiculous. I watch a LOT of shows, and I don’t want to watch 22 minutes (or 10 for sitcoms, whatever) every single time. Not gonna do it. Until they change that, my TV viewing habits (and a lot of others I’d bet) won’t change, and they’ll continue to lose money.

  22. Babybop says:

    I watch shows live as much as I can, but they should take into account the fact that a lot of the 18-25 age group are in school. I have night classes on Tuesday and Thursday, so I have no choice but to TiVo and watch later.
    Interesting article, though. Love learning more about how this whole ratings business works.

  23. NCmacASL says:

    How do Hulu & website viewing (often with ads you can’t FF thru!) figure with these numbers???

  24. sue says:

    I have a great DVR its called the internet…

  25. Elena says:

    This is such a clear, concise, and well-written article. Thanks so much for making it much easier to understand the significance of the L +3 and L +7 numbers, Matt. I have been trying to impress upon posters at a tv ratings site (that shall not be named) the importance of the L +3 numbers but they refuse to budge from their p.o.v. that ONLY the overnight numbers count and DVR playback means nothing. It’s been aggravating to try to argue this point and be shut down repeatedly. I’m so glad to have this article to cite in the future.

    • beckstle says:

      LOL! YEP. I know the site. They are 100% percent convinced the other numbers don’t matter. When I was suggesting the C+3 numbers do count (not the L+3) they point-blank refused to post it. Technology is shaking things up, and not being willing to even discuss the changes makes nagivating them more difficult and makes the analysis of how a show is doing less accurate.

      • Jennifer says:

        I know that site as well. To be fair, they weren’t saying the C+3 numbers don’t count, just that the information provided doesn’t end up being all that different from what you get from the overnight numbers. Like THIS article states above… “Besides, the Live+7 adjustments almost always only “make the winners bigger winners and the losers bigger losers” rather than rejigger the rankings.”

    • Jammer says:

      LOL! That’s right, believe everything the TV executives say because they have never been known to fib or stretch the truth for the sake of good PR.

  26. Sarah says:

    Great article Matt thank you!

  27. Marc says:

    The economic model we are used for broadcast television and probably basic cable as well will be dead by 2020. When half to two thirds of all viewers are skipping through the ads, scripted commercial television as we know it will no longer be viable. Only shows that attract live eyeballs will survive. The rest will be on pay cable or some pay service like Netflix or Amazon. It was a nice year run, but I’ll be shocked if ad-supported programming that costs several million dollars per hour to produce will make it to 2020.

  28. Robin says:

    Thanks for this piece! Very informative. I learned some things. But I do have a question. So people who are in a Nielson family actually watch commercials to shows they have dvred?

  29. Linda says:

    But in the end, if you aren’t a Neilson family, it doesn’t matter when or if you watch something, right?

  30. Abigale says:

    Interesting information Matt but I think the commenters here missed the most important sentence…”Instances such as the above make for noisy press releases, but the networks still are at a loss making them count where it matters: the bottom line.”

    DVR numbers are a great PR tool when a network is desperate to get some good press but the fact of the mater is it doesn’t help with the money. Make no mistake, TV is a business and money is all that counts.

  31. Jason says:

    All of you folks who think you’re “so smart” to fast-forward thru commercials–and then boast about it–need to get a clue. When the advertisers feel there’s no value in their ads, they will cease…and so will your free television. How do you think these shows are paid for? Good grief.

    • Carrie says:

      Seriously! Most viewers today seem to think they are the customer. They don’t realize that they are actually the product. Television is selling YOU to the advertisers. If you don’t watch the commercials then you don’t count. End of story.

      • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

        That’s actually in keeping with one of the quotes I had, from NBC’s scheduling chief: “Broadcast television is an interesting business because viewers watch our shows, but advertisers are our customers.”

  32. Purdue75 says:

    This probably blaspheme but it could help if actors not paid so much on some of the real popular shows!!

  33. O'Brien says:

    I’ll be interested to see how this changes even more as the prevalence of use of other platforms – especially Hulu and its counterparts – increases. I’m currently using Hulu+ for a lot of things. Monday nights are jam-packed on my DVR, between HIMYM, Bones, and Gossip Girl, so the only way I’m catching Revolution is via Hulu+, and there, I’m forced to deal with the ads. While this money isn’t “significant” at this time, I think that will change in the coming years.

  34. Robin says:

    I wonder how daytime tv figures in all this, because if there is one show that I pretty much always watch on the same day it was recorded, it is Young & the Restless, and usally Ellen too. Just something I thought about after my initial post. Of course my ratings don’t really count….
    What about social media & other internet buzz about shows? Can that info factor into helping certain shows?

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      Q: “What about social media & other internet buzz about shows? Can that info factor into helping certain shows?”
      A: Nopes.

  35. PPPG says:

    I admit – I’m one of the guilty one’s Even if I watch a show ‘live’. I’ll pause at the start to build up time so I can zap through the commercials.

    show / pause times:

    ½ hour / 7 to 10 minutes
    1 hour / 15 minuets

    I’m even looking at TV tuners to use on my computer when there are 3 shows at once.