No, I don’t mean that DVRs are going to be irrelevant to the way we watch TV. Quite the contrary; like VCRs, they’re going to get more and more popular, and since they don’t have the physical storage and reproduction problems of VHS tapes (not to mention the problems of tapes getting damaged or stuck in playback, which made it seem like I spent much of the ’90s fishing bits of tape out of a machine), they will be even more accepted and widely-used to record shows.
What I mean is that as DVRs become more popular, I think we’re going to hear less of the refrain we’ve been hearing for a couple of years: that we need to pay less attention to raw viewership numbers and more attention to the numbers when DVR viewing is added in. (We’ve heard this with a number of poorly-rated shows: Dollhouse, for example, was a historic bomb in “live” viewing but only a regular bomb when the time-shifting was accounted for.) The problem is that as more people use DVRs, in all age groups and demographics, it’s less likely that any one type of show will have an advantage or that shows will gain an unusual number of viewers among the time-shifters. The popular shows will be just as popular when you factor everything in, ditto the unpopular shows.
That, anyway, is what I take away from a recent study of which shows have posted the biggest gains in the number of DVR viewers. I wish it had numbers for every show, but it confirms what we probably new: DVR usage is growing and will continue to grow. But What interests me, though, is that shows seem to cluster around a fairly predictable number of viewers — whereas there are huge differences between the number of viewers shows get overall, there often aren’t huge differences in the time-shifting numbers. 30 Rock and Chuck each gain around 2 million viewers from time shifting, but so does Big Bang Theory; it’s impressive that the cult show is equal with a hit show in that format, but to really thrive, the cult show would need to be way ahead, the way some cult shows have massively outsold the hits on DVD. In other words, you add in the DVR viewership for Chuck and it looks better, until you realize that other shows are still ahead of it by roughly the same amount.
But at least it’s a plus for the cult shows that, in DVR world, they are on the same level as the bigger shows. Except I don’t know if even that will last. According to this report, the older-skewing shows posted big gains in DVR viewership last season, presumably as more older viewers become used to the format. As it gets more mainstream, it may erode the ability of a cult or niche show to get a higher percentage of its viewers in that form. In other words, we may be heading towards a future where the viewership for shows in DVR or online looks exactly like the viewership “live.”
There are exceptions, of course. The Office is the big one. That show has always thrived in the time-shifted format; it and to a lesser extent Fringe are the shows that really have an advantage over the others in DVR. I don’t know exactly why that is, though it may be that its laid-back, low-key style benefits from the lower-pressure atmosphere of viewing a show whenever you want. When watching live it can sometimes feel like the commercials are coming in random places, and because of its lack of a music score it doesn’t have the same emotional pressure to watch now that other shows try to hit you with.