June 23, 2007

Television And Multichannel Forensics

Are you watching less television?

I sure am. During the past three years, the DVR fundamentally changed how I use my time.

This is fascinating, because the VCR existed for decades, but it didn't change my behavior. I recorded a handful of shows. Maybe I was attending a dinner, and would miss a new episode of Seinfeld. The VCR kept me current with programs I missed.

For me, three things happened that caused me to stop watching television.
  • Television became awful. I'm not sure television was ever great, but it sure used to be better. Last night, I scanned two hundred channels before settling on a thirty year old episode of MASH that I viewed a hundred times previously. I personally think September 11 changed television. How many comedies are on television anymore? Life wasn't funny after September 11 ... at least that's my opinion. You have to balance the half-dozen CSI and Law and Order franchises with something that makes you laugh. Instead, television gave us "reality" programming, an inexpensive, unsustainable, short-term profit solution to comedy. Instead of improving the quality of the programming, television improved the quality of the image (HDTV).
  • If television is awful, then there isn't a reason to sit in front of the television for three straight hours. To me, the DVR didn't represent a fundamental change, because the VCR always existed. The DVR coupled with awful television represented a fundamental change. When there are only a handful of quality choices (quality is defined differently by each individual), one can use the DVR to create a personalized "evening of television". For instance, this morning, I am going through a week of programs like "Charlie Rose", Dan Rather Reports, and CBS Sunday Morning. Television folks call this "time shifting". I call it "convenience". These days, I can watch "Lost" on Thursday evening, when both my wife and I are at home.
  • Television folks say the DVR allows you to skip commercials, a bad thing for the health of the television industry. We've been able to skip commercials for three decades. Bad television coupled with technology changed consumer behavior. When the price of a DVR became affordable to the average consumer, a mass shift in behavior occurred. Cable companies, the very middlemen who connect viewers to programming, hastened this shift by offering low-cost or no-cost DVRs to consumers in response to competition. I purchased my first DVR three years ago, my first HD-DVR last year. Everything changed, especially after buying the HD-DVR.
Programming, advertising, cable/satellite providers, technology, the internet and pricing all interacted in a complex slurry, yielding the odd response to television we see today, an odd response ideally suited for a Multichannel Forensics analysis. Only seventeen percent of Americans own a DVR. What happens when fifty percent of Americans can afford a DVR?

Maybe most interesting is what I do with my extra time. I write books, I write this blog, I volunteer. Arguably, the quality of my life is better today than pre-DVR, thanks to the "quality" of television today. It is a zero-sum game.


  1. Thanks for posting on a topic that needs to be examined. I have personally never met anyone who has gotten a DVR and not reported that it had fundamentally changed their viewing habits -- and indeed their leisure time in general!

    Fast-forwarding through commercials does mean that you have the power to hit the brakes if you see an ad you'd like to catch. My wife and I have done this twice, and both times it has been for an Apple ad (or ad series).

    The first is the very funny John Hodgeman "I'm a Mac / I'm a PC" series. Julie and I will stop, rewind and watch those, sometimes twice. that's engagement.

    The other series is the recent iPhone ads. I was able to recognize the ad from the quickly-advancing frames (kudos to the Apple ad agency for making everything so recognizably product-against-black). I had been raving to her about the phone. She couldn't understand my excitement. After seeing one of the ads she was hooked.

    This was all possible because of the time-shifting capability of the DVR.

  2. Anonymous11:52 AM

    Interesting post. My wife and I are not avid tv watchers, but there are certain shows we will watch--some on non-commercial cable, others on the USA/FX networks. If we miss one epsisode of a show, it isn't end of the world, nor do we feel need for dvr. We don't rush to get home or send kids off to bed just to catch our show. There are enough reruns or on demand we will catch another time.
    Our kids aren't allowed to "watch tv"--they either pick a specific show like Heros or they watch a movie and they don't have patience for a commercial and will flip to a music channel--they must get that from my wife and I as we will flip to a sports station or go do a chore during commercials.
    Only time we ever watch commercials is the Superbowl when we are expecting them to be good(last year they were horrible).
    Point is, I've heard the complaint about DVR and how corporate sponsors are trying to prevent commercial skipping or even the big 3 networks from putting more shows on demand. I've also seen Macy's drop significant newspaper ad coverage in favor or tv, and it hasn't worked. I've seen popup ads in internet increase, although my own personal feeling and ones I've observed in others around me is resentment at having to clear the @#$# popups to get to the article.
    However, the women in my house jump to the sunday circulars every week. The latest catalog or magazine ad is oohed and ahhed at coffee breaks. People at the grocery stores or restaurants still use coupons from the paper or ones they've searched for on the net.
    So really---print ads whether in magazine or newspaper or as a catalog have not gone away.
    It isn't so much the quality of the tv, as people still talk around water cooler about Sopranos, and Lost, or teens about heros, American Idol, Amazing Race, etc. even if they are watching them on demand or on the net.
    The question becomes, how do you use the highest reaching mediums to market when everyone is skipping the commercials and cursing the popups?


  3. Anonymous10:07 AM

    VCR technology has been around for decades -- but not DVR. And the latter is the real reason why behavior has changed.

    The greater convenience of the DVR relative to the VCR is what enabled viewing habits to change so dramatically.

    Jeff: I suspect you and your wife are in the minority if you "hit the brakes" and re-watch ads.

    I also suspect that fewer people that anticipated are skipping thru the ads. Why? Because I'm probably not alone in forgetting that I'm watching something recorded, and not live, when viewing something on the DVR.

  4. Thanks for the comments everybody.

    So, what do you think causes fewer folks to watch television, after accounting for the "DVR" effect?

    Is it the quality of programming, or is it a shift in attention to the internet, or something else?


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