DVR Giving Artificial Life to Poor Network Programming

Posted on October 30th, 2014 by True Media

Manhattan Love Story, ABC

You may have heard recently that the first of the Fall 2014 network shows has gotten cut, six weeks into the season. “Manhattan Love Story,” an ABC comedy also-ran, met its fate just shortly after posting and incredible low Nielsen rating of 0.7 among 18-49 year olds. Last year by week five, several cancellations had hit the deck, and many with more robust followings than “Manhattan” could claim. But this shift should not come as a surprise to anyone; with the huge volume of people consuming programming out of timeslot, and with the recent rash of “catch-as-catch-can” network scrambles for content, television is finding itself clinging to DVR numbers to save shows that may not be worth saving in the first place.
Let’s start by looking at the impact of those DVR viewers. In the olden days, watching a show you liked at the moment it was aired was of critical importance; it was the way you knew what to talk about with your coworkers the next day, a crucial piece of social currency. Then DVR shook things up by reshaping the television viewing schedule to fit the viewer’s personal schedule. From the perspective of the viewer, this was a change that only served to add value to their viewing experience, and it didn’t take long to start seeing the ratings shift as more and more viewers began to choose their own timeslots. I know from my personal experience that the change was dramatic.
My grandparents got their first DVR as a gift from a tech-savvy uncle. They had been religiously devoted to CBS’ twin behemoths “The Young and the Restless,” as well as “The Bold and the Beautiful,” watching for their hour and a half daily, and even planning lunch and appointments around them. Within the first week of owning a DVR, their viewing habits shifted from the daily, scheduled watching into recording a week (or two) worth of episodes and watching them back to back on a Saturday morning, or between sports events.
That kind of shift, multiplied thousands of times by thousands of consumers, is enough to really take a bite out of expected ratings. In Nielsen’s illustration (fig 1)

(Fig. 1) Impact of DVR on Ratings, courtesy of Nielsen

from a few years ago, you can see just how dramatically this trend plays out. Shows that appear to have a rather lackluster following suddenly gain a third or more viewership once the DVR figures are included. That leads to some very foggy planning and decision making for the networks. How do you determine whether or not a show, which- even with low ratings- is bound to have some following, deserves to be cancelled, when you won’t know the final ratings for some time to come? In the traditional paradigm, November sweeps would be the deadline to cut the dead weight from the schedule. Now, we will see endless waffling as the networks scramble to prove that their investments weren’t total losses.
Of course, you could argue that they true key to solving the DVR dilemma lies not in waiting to see if the DVR numbers will boost the overall ratings, but in producing quality programming from the get-go.  Part of the reluctance to cancel these struggling shows is as much because of DVR viewing as it is because there isn’t a strong show slated to fill its place. In the years since the unveiling of shows like “CSI,” “NCIS,” and even “Law & Order,” we’ve been seeing a gathering of poor reboots aimed at nostalgic baby boomers, or shows based on social ephemera in an attempt to grab the millennial audience. In fact, the best bet a network has for primetime right now is to find another city and a B-list cast and recreate any or all of the aforementioned shows. “CSI: Tulsa?” “NCIS: Area 51?” Primetime gold in the making.
So, while the impact of DVR on viewership certainly deserves to be considered in the fight for timeslot supremacy, the ultimate factor is going to be creating a show worth watching in the first place. We don’t need to wait two more weeks to prove that we’re over shows with singing cancer patients, or shows with hackneyed hashtag titles; what we need is for the networks to cut bait and start fresh, and this time, with feeling!
There. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I think I’ll go queue up some reruns of The Office on Netflix…