DVRs threaten the 10pm primetime hour

Note: Sorry that posts have been so sparse the past two months. In the few posts I’ve offered during this time you’ll see I keep saying I’ve just gotten over a sickness and will be back to work on the blog. Alas, my never-ending cold turned out to be double-pneumonia so I dropped out for a few weeks to kill it once and for all. I really am back this time! I will do a few posts to catch up on things that happened while I was out, starting with this one.

Last week TiVo shared an analysis of its Stop||Watch ratings service that reveals a likely long-term impact of DVR use. They found that when people have a DVR, the majority of the primetime viewing they do is timeshifted in some way, whether started late to skip commercials or recorded for later viewing. No surprise there. But here’s the interesting tidbit: because people still want to watch the 11pm news in time to go to bed, if someone doesn’t start watching the 8pm and 9pm shows until 9pm, it means the 10pm show is just dumb out of luck. Even if it gets recorded, it is less likely to actually be viewed. 

Is the 10pm hour dead? (Note for Central and Mountain time people, for you, we’re talking about the 9pm hour. In fact, given that C/M shows run on an hour-earlier schedule, one wonders if this same effect is as true in those time zones. Since the urge to go to bed presumably doesn’t strike an hour earlier, maybe these people are more comfortable watching the 9pm show at 10pm in time to catch the evening news at 10:45, still making it to bed shortly after 11pm.)

The most disturbing thing about this whole analysis is it suggests that NBC Universal head Zucker has a crystal ball.

He’s the guy who cut the budget for 10pm programming as well as authorized increased reality programming (say, Deal or No Deal) which is cheaper to produce than ER, which recently had its farewell episode after an amazingly long but dwindling run. He’s also the force behind The Jay Leno Show, the 10pm primetime talkshow that hopes to cheaply fill the slot that — according to TiVo — fewer and fewer people will be watching. So is the Leno effort just a way to cut costs or is it also strategic? This is the hard part to swallow. Gulp. It may actually be a smart move. Yeah, it probably won’t be a ratings killer every night. That’s why NBC is happy it will be cheap to produce. However, once in a while, say, when a ship captain who was held hostage by Somali pirates is booked, the show will become current events, the kind of thing people will want to watch live, joining the few things in the pantheon of TV that are true DVR-busters like sports and news. 

It may turn out that the 10pm hour will become the new Today Show — a cheap way to fill time that periodically strikes it big. And that’s just the first long-term trend in TV that the DVR will force. A bigger question is hanging out there in the balance that remains to be answered, namely, in the future, how will we know which shows we should watch?

Sounds like a silly question, but I’m serious: today you rely on the networks to do all the filtering for you. If the idea is a good one, they’ll invest heavily in it, attract the right talent, promote it heavily, and schedule it in a winning spot. You probably don’t consciously think through all of that, but they certainly do. And we are the beneficiaries of all that sweat and effort. But in a world where we watch hours of TV shows on our PCs and can DVR all of the content coming off the air, how relevant is programming and scheduling? In an all on-demand world, there’s no scheduling at all, leaving you no way to know which shows are worth your time.

What do you think? How will the market signal to us which shows are hot and which are not?

One obvious answer is word of mouth, but what will that look like? One additional trend that will increase under these conditions: the rise of star producers like J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon. In the old days, you didn’t need to know that Aaron Spelling created your favorite TV shows. That was clout Spelling used behind the scenes. But in the future, more producers will have to take their pitch directly to their fans in the audience, something Whedon has already said he wants to do, as soon as he can figure out a way to fund it.

We’re just at the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way we not only watch TV, but how we decide what we should watch in the first place. Your suggestions on how this will evolve are more than welcome.

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4 Responses to DVRs threaten the 10pm primetime hour

  1. J.P. says:

    I think some networks are working around the DVR killing the 10 pm by trying to kill the DVR with their own timeshifting. For instance, American Idol has been pushing into Fringe’s timespot, which has caused me to have to record 3 slots on my DVR for 2 shows. Other networks also have weird shifting time slots, such as with CBS’s The Unit. My wife has various recording options on the DVR trying to make sure she catches the right time.

    It seems that some cable companies and networks can’t get together on the true times of shows, which might really frustrate viewers, causing them to abandon DVRs and move to purely online options. Or viewers will record extra timeslots and accidentally see shows they normally wouldn’t.

  2. James McQuivey says:

    Very insightful comment (as a Fringe follower, I had the same trouble recently) and probably spot on the money as far as the networks’ intentions are concerned. And you’re also right about the likely outcome for viewers: I have already abandoned the DVR for two of my shows since Huluing them (new verb!) is so much easier.

  3. Paul Smart says:

    This problem you’ve talked about of finding the “good stuff” amidst the clutter…Will automated recommendation engines evenutally become the go-to source for new content? Right now, I pay much more attention to word-of-mouth recommendations from people I know, even if their viewing interests are dissimilar to mine. However, I do think there is potential for automated recommendation engines to narrow that gap in coming years as the amount of available data for them to crunch grows. Look at what Netflix is doing. They have years worth of data on rentals, queues, ratings, etc, and better yet, it’s all tied to the demographic information of their specifically identifiable subscribers–something free sites like Hulu will have a hard time doing. It’s not surprising that their recommendation engine is one of the best. This is one of the many interesting things about YouTube’s entry into the premium content space. Imagine the amount of data Google has tied to each of its user accounts! Once YouTube’s content library grows, will they be able to leverage that data advantage to offer better recommendations than other sites that are leading the way now?…or more to the point, even better than our friends? If so, how far are we from that moment of Singularity?

  4. James McQuivey says:

    I’m with you, Paul, on the potential for YouTube to know so much about what we watch (maybe too much, for some, given what many people I know spend their time watching on YouTube :). Their recommendations could be phenomenal, not only in what videos are recommended, but they might even know what day and time to recommend the right kind of content. I’m planning a post about YouTube soon, I’ll elaborate more then, but you’re on to something.

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