BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. TiVo and all the digital video recorders that followed changed the laws of physics for TV viewers. Time collapsed and your favorite shows suddenly could be viewed whenever you wanted - great for the TV audience, not so great for the TV industry. Timeshifting meant that viewers could skip past commercials, which meant that advertisers would have less incentive to spend money advertising, which meant networks would have less money to invest in quality programming. But, it turns out that many DVR watchers, 46 percent, in fact, of those 18-to-49 who watch the major networks on a DVR actually do watch the commercials, according to New York Times writer Bill Carter.
BILL CARTER: I've always said people underestimate how passively people watch television. I don't know if you remember, there used to be like suggestions that there would be this tremendous move to interactive television where you could pick the ending. And I thought people don't want to do that.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] They don't want to think after - when they come home from work. You’ve been thinking all day. One of the people I talked to specifically said the passive nature of the medium is a factor. You come home, you put on your DVR - oh, I recorded House and I ordered in some Chinese food, and the commercial comes on. Now I've got to stop eating the Chinese food to pick up the remote and zip through the commercial. I don't bother. But it’s also true that the commercials are slightly better than they used to be, and they're trying to make them more entertaining. They're putting them more of them in high definition, and they're using little gimmicks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are four different kinds of ratings right now. They all show drastically different things.
BILL CARTER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you explain how they work and what they show?
BILL CARTER: Okay, so you have what’s called the live program rating. That’s what you always had. The show was on the air, how many people were watching it while it was on the air. And then you have the live-plus-same-day rating. So that means if you DVR’d the show, the 8 o'clock show, and you watched it at 10 o'clock, that’s the live-plus-same-day. Then you have live-plus-seven-days, and there you see, within a week period - obviously the idea is before the next episode of the show comes on the following week, how many people watched. But there’s a fourth category, the commercial-plus-three rating. And that does not measure the program at all. It only measures the commercials in the program. Over a three-day period, from the time it was first on to three days later, how many people watched the commercials? And that’s the key part of the business, because that’s what all the advertising rates are now based on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, how does the picture differ from rating to rating to rating to rating?
BILL CARTER: If you’re a network program, you have a much lower live program rating than you ever had before; every year that goes down. But most shows have seen a bump in the commercial-plus-three rating. Their rating has gone up about 10 percent, even though only 46 percent are watching the commercial.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you’re saying is that, that 46 percent is actually 10 percent more people watching the commercials -
BILL CARTER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - than before the DVR?
BILL CARTER: Yes. In the old days of television, when there was no recording at all, if you had a favorite show and it was on 9 o'clock on Thursday night, and then another network said, I'm going to move my best show there, well, you had to make a choice then. Now you don't have to make a choice at all. The classic in this case, I think, is The Office. It’s on at 9 o'clock on Thursday night. That’s an unbelievably high-profile time period, because CSI, which has been the most popular show on television for years, is also on there, and Grey’s Anatomy, which is a gigantically popular show, is also on there. All three of those shows are now hits because of timeshifting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about shows that are more time-specific? I guess some people time shift sporting events, but do they time shift the news?
[BOTH AT ONCE]
BILL CARTER: Rarely. Most people watch news programs live, very little timeshifting. And, interestingly, this year, The Jay Leno Show, a show that was devised to be sort of the counter to the DVR because, oh, it’s topical humor, nobody’s going to timeshift it, you've got to watch it live, it turns out that’s a bad idea [LAUGHS] because commercial-plus-three has boosted the ratings for most shows. This show, The Jay Leno Show, is one of the few in television that has a lower rating for the commercials after three days than for the live program. I was talking to an NBC executive who said, everything goes wrong for us.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] We, we come up with a show that’s DVR-proof and then they tell us, no, the DVR [LAUGHS] is good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Too clever by half.
BILL CARTER: Yes. A CBS executive said to me, only half facetiously, that when they saw this research and they said, you know, the actual penetration of the DVR has slowed down – it was tremendous for a long time – but there are people now who say, you know what? It costs extra a month, so the penetration has slowed down. But, he said, it looks so good we ought to buy them and give them to viewers free and let them timeshift as much as they want, ‘cause it really helps.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] That, that - it sounds bizarre, but – Another network executive said to me, we thought it was our biggest enemy and now it’s our BFF, the DVR.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] Thank you so much.
BILL CARTER: Nice to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Carter covers television for The New York Times.