Does DVR Viewing = Less Urgent Viewing?

An interesting blog post by Wayne Friedman on MediaPost's TV Watch blog asks whether DVR viewing of a TV show means that a show is less urgent, by implication less important, and thus its advertising less potent, to viewers who choose to watch programs in this fashion. Friedman seems to think that the answer to these interrelated questions is yes, but I would argue that he misunderstands how DVR owners utilize their machines and how TV viewing is evolving for those viewers that have DVRs.

Of course, Friedman writes for an audience of industry insiders intimately involved in network programming strategies and/or TV advertising sales and strategy, people for whom the most important factor is how fully and effectively television ads are delivered to viewers. There's no question that DVR viewing waters down this effectiveness--which is one of the reasons why DVR viewing is becoming such an attractive option for millions of viewers.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I have a feeling that it is similar to many people who regularly view TV from shows recorded on a DVR. Viewing shows on a DVR alters the ways that you think about watching TV. And many of these ways--at least for me--have to do with avoiding or minimizing exposure to ads.

There are several viewing strategies for ad avoidance. One is to pause the DVR's live feed on a channel, leave the room to do something else for a short time, then resume viewing of the program and fast-forwarding through the commercial breaks. Another is to set a program to record on the DVR and to start watching the program 15 or 20 minutes after it has started; this also allows fast-forwarding through the commercial breaks. Recorded shows can likewise be viewed (and ads fast-forwarded through) later on after the actual broadcast has finished--anywhere from later the same evening to later in the week (or beyond).

These strategies are not news for anyone that has and uses a DVR. They are not even that different from the time-shifting methods used by viewers who used to (or still do) record TV shows on a VCR. This kind of time-shifting has two compelling benefits: avoiding commercials and compressing the amount of time it takes to watch a program. Despite the fact that--from the perspective of networks and advertisers--television programs have always been merely something to fill the time between commercial breaks, viewers would (in most cases) rather avoid ads whenever and however possible. Avoiding the commercial breaks also allows an hour-long show to be viewed in a little over 45 minutes, meaning that an evening's worth (three hours) of programming can be watched in a little over two hours--a benefit not to be underestimated in our overscheduled and time-scarce society.

Which brings me back to the question of whether or not DVR viewing equals less urgent viewing. Of course, strictly speaking, there is no doubt that this is true. Watching a program at a later time (say, the next day) when it could have been watched at the moment it was airing by definition makes that viewing less urgent. I would, however, challenge the idea that less urgency in viewing a program signals a lesser commitment to it. The fact that I often watch "30 Rock" on Friday evening, or even not until sometime over the weekend, instead of during its actual airing on Thursday evening, does not mean that I have less of a commitment to it. It simply means that because I record it on my DVR I don't feel any urgency to watch it immediately. I know I'll get to it within a day or two, and doing so does not reduce my commitment to or interest in the program.

Networks and advertisers (and the support functions for television, such as ratings services) are still adjusting to this new world of viewing options and possibilities. The fact that Friedman in his blog post seems to misunderstand the viewing habits and priorities of DVR users indicates that they may still have a lot more adjustments in store.

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