Increased DVR usage makes it harder to judge success and failure of TV shows

In an earlier era, the 9.2 million viewers who watched NBC's "Revolution" in its regular time slot on television's premiere week wouldn't impress many television executives.

Now, that number is only part of the story. Add in people who saw the show on DVR playback within the following seven days — numbers released by the Nielsen company on Monday — and the drama about a suddenly electricity-free world was seen by 14.2 million people. That estimate also includes only a handful of the people who ordered the episode through an on-demand service or who saw it online.

People aren't watching television the way they used to, a transition that has accelerated markedly this fall, making it much harder to judge whether or not a show is successful.

"It's quite stunning," said Andy Durwitz, ABC's chief scheduling executive. "We're seeing all of the audience becoming much more sophisticated with the DVR and making their own schedules."

During the first two weeks of the season, digital video recorder usage is up 30 percent over last season, said David Poltrack, top research executive at CBS. That may settle down, he said. Clearly, the DVR has become an essential tool for people interested in sampling many of the new series that come with a fall season, he said.

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Now, when the overnight ratings come in, Poltrack cautions, "you can't read anything from them."

That's not entirely true. You can usually smell a hit pretty quickly, and the same is true of a dog. It's all those shows in between that are more of a mystery.

For the networks, it should teach patience. With extra data to sift through, it may take executives more time to cancel series (only one, CBS' "Made in Jersey," has bit the dust so far this season) and decide whether to extend their initial episode orders, generally the first sign that a new show has a real future.

Some things about "Revolution" made NBC executives suspect it may get a big boost from DVRs, said Jeff Bader, NBC's top scheduling executive. It appeals to men and science fiction fans, both relatively big DVR users. It's also new; given a choice between shows to watch live or later, a viewer will most likely focus on a familiar series first, he said.

Shows on ABC and CBS have increased their audiences by an average of 20 percent when adding in those who watched on tape within a week, said Nielsen, which measures TV audiences. Fox is up 18 percent and NBC 15 percent. The shifts are even more noticeable among younger viewers: ABC's audience within the 18-to-49-year-old demographic increased by 32 percent and CBS' by 29 percent, Nielsen said.

The live audience for the Emmy-winning comedy "Modern Family" was 14.44 million on premiere week. The audience increased to 18.85 million with taped viewing factored in, Nielsen said. ABC's "Castle" increased its audience from 10.47 million to 13.84 million. Fox's "Glee" jumped from 5.18 million to 7.68 million.

The week's most time-shifted shows were actually shown on cable. FX's episode of "Sons of Anarchy," for example, was seen live by 2.5 million people with its viewership jumping to nearly 6 million with DVR figures added in, Nielsen said.

Live or sports programming is the least affected by DVR usage. For example, NBC's Sunday night football had a live audience of 22.76 million, only rising to 22.82 million with DVR added in.

Sometimes there is little science in predicting DVR success beyond popularity. CBS' "NCIS," usually TV's most-watched scripted series, had 20.48 million live viewers for its season premiere, increasing to 24.13 million with DVR usage added in. The troubled comedy "Partners" had a small audience live (6.55 million) and didn't add much (7.25 million after seven days).

"The environment this year is quite different from the environment last year, which is quite different from the year before," Poltrack said. "Every year when we go into the first two weeks, the whole world has changed."

Live stream or on demand figures aren't immediately available from Nielsen. But CBS research shows they are quickly growing as options. The network's consumer panel said 12 percent of people reported watching a show via online streaming this fall, up from 4 percent last year. The percentage of people watching shows on demand increased from 2 percent to 11 percent, he said.

Fox last year streamed episodes of "New Girl" online before the series premiered on the network and that decision paid off: word of mouth from people who had seen the show online gave the series strong ratings out of the box.

The network tried the same strategy this fall with "The Mindy Project" and "Ben & Kate" but it didn't work as well, said Joe Earley, the network's chief operating officer. The premiere week live numbers appeared depressed because of people watching early.

Now, Fox is trying to encourage more people to watch the show live.

"It's almost like living in a parallel universe simultaneously," Earley said "You're constantly trying to reorient yourself on how this show is doing and how it is doing compared to the competition."

Television's current currency — the ratings figures used to set advertising rates — is how many people view a show's commercials live or within three days. The seven-day rating provides a truer look at a show's real popularity, but it takes Nielsen more than two weeks to compute those figures. Even then, more people are waiting for a full-season DVD to come out to catch up on a show, or stacking several episodes on their DVR and "binging" by watching them all at once.

They are all factors to be considered when networks decide whether or not to move forward with a show. They must also consider whether a show is popular internationally. Whether or not a network owns a show is also figured in to the financial equation.

"It's going to get more and more complicated," Bader said.

Since the 1960s, the TV business has been oriented toward getting information on how a show is doing more and more quickly, Poltrack noted. Executives would frequently know before dawn the day after a show is aired what kind of a future it does or doesn't have. Now often they will have to wait.

"Slowing down a little bit is not a bad thing," he said. "We could all use a little bit of introspection. We could all spend a little less time processing and more time thinking."