You may have already heard that Nielsen’s year-end top 10 lists include a list of the top 10 “Timeshifted” TV programs (scroll down), meaning shows that get the biggest boost in viewership from people who watch them via DVR or other methods that don’t require them to watch the episodes via the network broadcast.
Heroes, which topped the list, has always been famous for having a particularly DVR-centric following; that inspired Tim Kring’s already-legendary comment that only “dipshits” watch the show in the traditional way. Of the shows on the list, only four are actual top 10 ratings hits — The Mentalist, the two nightly telecasts of American Idol, and Survivor. Of the other six, Heroes is the one that suffers most from the gap because, first of all, the gap is so big, and second, because its actual ratings aren’t very good. If everybody who watched Heroes watched it on Monday nights on NBC, it would be a hit, even now, even after the last two seasons. But DVR viewers don’t count toward the ratings, and what’s more, they shouldn’t, because the real targets for ratings are the advertisers, and why should advertisers care about the people who aren’t watching their commercials?
Speaking as someone who used to record most of his favourite shows on a VCR and watch them at odd hours (I may be the only person in the universe who found it easier to program a VCR than a DVR), I’ll add that this isn’t new. But it’s bigger than the VCR problem because DVR eliminates the bulky videotapes and lower quality of VHS recording; shows look just as good when played back on DVR as they do when you’re watching them “live,” so what incentive is there to stay and wait for a show to come on? So more and more people are going to be DVR-ing their shows, and the networks will have to figure out how to make money off that — but how? It’s easy to say that they need to get away from the traditional business model where they rely on selling advertising time during the broadcast, but I don’t think anybody’s ever really come up with an alternative model that works for non-pay TV.
I will also add that I think there really is something gained in watching a show at the appointed time, though I’m not sure I could explain what it is. But I feel like a good TV episode is more of an “experience” when watched straight through, with no option to fast-forward or skip commercials. When I’m watching something on DVD or DVR or the Internet, I feel like I’m setting the pace to a certain extent, because I can pause, fast-forward, skip — I can practically edit the show as I go along. When I’m a captive audience for a show, I have to adjust myself to the show’s pace (which includes the commercial breaks, which are built into the pacing and structure of a show). And I think, subconsciously, the knowledge that you’re watching at the same time as millions of other people creates a sort of communal experience, even if it’s a very debased one.
None of which means we should stop watching shows at our convenience; the gains of watching shows “live” are not worth the inconvenience of having to plan our lives around the air time of a particular show. But there is something fun about watching a good episode at its actual air time, when the occasion arises.