How Delayed Viewing Is Changing the Primetime Game This Season

By Michael Schneider

Jan 09, 2014

James Spader  | Photo Credits: David Giesbrecht/NBC

It would be easy to call The Blacklist a hit simply because of its plum time slot — airing after NBC's monster talent competition The Voice. But that would ignore an astounding fact about the show's viewership: Nearly 8 million viewers watch The Blacklist at a completely different time, and not behind The Voice.

Instead, during the first half of the season, that large crowd caught episodes of The Blacklist on DVRs and some video-on-demand services within the first seven days of its initial airing. About 9.3 million viewers watched The Blacklist live on Mondays at 10/9c, but another 1.8 million saw the show on a delayed basis later that night. Then, 4.8 million more viewers caught the episode within three days, and another 1.3 million saw it by the end of seven days.

Add it all up, and this past fall The Blacklist averaged a solid 17.2 million viewers a week. That's an 85 percent gain from its initial live audience — quite a leap from "modest hit" to "smash success."

It's no wonder NBC gave the James Spader drama an early second-season renewal on Dec. 3. NBC's confidence in the show is backed by that hefty "live plus seven day" ratings jump, which allowed the network to proclaim The Blacklist its most-watched new drama in 19 years (since Earth 2 in 1994).

The Blacklist is just one of many primetime shows seeing a tremendous bounce once delayed viewing is factored in. This fall, CBS' The Big Bang Theory added the most viewers after three days: 9.6 million, a lift of 71 percent from its initial 13.5 million viewers (bringing it to 23.2 million). Overall, the Big 4 networks are up 6 percent in total viewers verse last year when seven days of DVR use is factored in.

Meanwhile, more than 20 shows have at least doubled their audience in the desirable 18-49 demographic from their initial live airing up to the seventh day of DVR viewing. Topping that list: NBC's Revolution, which in its first six episodes went from a paltry live rating of a 1.4 million in the demo to a much more acceptable 3.2 million.

All that extra viewing is a big booster for a network like The CW, whose young viewers don't watch much live TV. The CW starts with small audiences for its dramas before more than doubling many of those viewer totals.

"There are big shifts," says NBC's Jeff Bader, president of program planning, strategy and research. "Definitely when you look at the ratings [going up], you feel better." Says CBS chief research officer David Poltrack, speaking at a recent media conference: "I believe that the changes in the way people watch television that have occurred in the past two years are more significant than the changes that occurred in the previous 20 years."

Poltrack believes DVR penetration will hit 50 percent of TV homes this season. He also points out that DVR playback has jumped 15 percent this season (compared to 7 percent last season), thanks partly to older viewers watching on the device. He also notes that more DVR playback (35 percent) is taking place on the weekend in non-primetime hours. Primetime now accounts for 22 percent of playback. "You could say that the playback of their primetime programs during [weekend] hours is an indirect way for the networks to counter-program themselves," he says.

DVR use is nothing new, and the impact of delayed viewing has been noted for several years. But Hollywood insiders have been buzzing this season about how the industry may have finally reached a tipping point: The networks want to be paid for that delayed viewing.

Currently, ads are sold based on how many people have watched the commercial breaks during a TV show within the first three days of its airing. Those "C3" ratings, as they're called, are usually several tenths of a ratings point higher than the "live plus same day" ratings that are usually cited in ratings stories. (For example, The Blacklist's live plus same day average is a 3.1 rating among viewers 18-49, and its C3 average in the demo is a 3.6 rating).

But execs would like advertisers to start paying for seven days or more. (In that case, The Blacklist's "C7" rating would be a 3.7 in the demo). CBS boss Leslie Moonves has even said he believes advertisers should be charged for the first 30 days of viewing.

Bader and Poltrack both believe that VOD is becoming the bigger story this season, now that Nielsen includes that viewing in its C3 tallies. According to Poltrack, CBS's rating grows 4 percent when VOD is included, while The Good Wife sees its C3 rating leap by 9 percent. "VOD is already making a sizable contribution to the revenues of the networks," Poltrack says.

Bader believes cable and satellite operators are doing a better job in touting their VOD offerings, and viewers are just now figuring out that they can catch episodes they forgot to watch live or record on their DVR.

Bader hesitates to say whether time-shifted ratings have helped save shows from cancellation. (Some in the industry have credited the DVR with prolonging Fringe's run.) "Are we heading in that direction? Possibly," he says, noting that it will be more evident in April, when execs decide which on-the-bubble shows to bring back next year. "We will have a full season's worth of all this data. And that will be the first time we're really thinking about, 'Does this show have potential because of DVR usage?'"

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