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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