Live Viewing Still Matters

Author: Steve Sternberg. Source: MediaPost

Once upon a time, there was an ongoing industry debate about whether there was a correlation between program engagement and commercial attentiveness.  For every study that indicated people paid more attention to ads during their favorite programs, another study came out that said the more intensely you were viewing your favorite shows, the less attentive you were during commercial breaks.

Since program ratings were the currency of the day, “potential commercial exposure” was the research mantra, and minute-by-minute audience measurement was not readily available, this amounted to little more than an interesting academic debate throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

Then came the DVR, time-shifted audience measurement, and commercial minute ratings.  For the first time, it was easier for viewers to avoid commercials in their favorite shows (the ones they recorded most for later viewing).

At their height, with 90% penetration of U.S. TV homes, VCRs only accounted for about 5% of prime-time rating points.  DVRs, on the other hand, typically account for more than half of all viewing to original scripted series, both on broadcast and cable networks. 

Most people in the industry don’t even look at live ratings anymore, and they are almost never reported in the press.  Even discussions of delayed viewing typically compare those stats to Live + Same Day data.  While C3 and sometimes C7 are used for the buying and selling of TV commercial time, these “C” streams of data don’t tell us how many viewers are exposed to the ads.

Research should focus on the differences in commercial impact between live and time-shifted viewing.  I’ve conducted research showing that brand message recall is about three times higher among live viewers.  Given that virtually every study regarding DVRs that I’ve ever seen has shown that about three-quarters of DVR viewers claim to fast-forward though commercials always or often, this 3:1 ratio makes perfect sense.

Since broadcast networks have a much higher percentage of their schedules as original scripted series, they track significantly more DVR usage and delayed viewing.  During the Q4 2016, for example, the percentage of prime-time live viewing among adults 18-49 ranged from 74% for CW to 84% for NBC.  
For the most part, broadcast networks are so much higher-rated than cable networks, that it isn’t particularly relevant to compare them in terms of live viewing.  It has more relevance when comparing cable networks to one another (since only three- or four-tenths of a rating point separates the top 40 rated cable entertainment networks in prime time).

Networks that air mostly off-network series, namely Nick-at-Nite, ION, Adult Swim, and TV Land, lead the way in live viewing, with 95% or more of their prime-time viewing among adults 18-49 and 25-54 being live.  BET, FXX, Freeform, TBS, Animal Planet, TNT, HGTV, and TruTV have more than 90% of their prime-time audiences live.

Nielsen now releases extensive data for days eight to 35 after the initial broadcast.  I had a chance to glimpse some broadcast network data for a week in December.  While obviously not representative of the full season, it does provide a snapshot.  For regularly scheduled prime-time series, about 15% had a lift beyond seven days of 10%-14%, and 55% had a lift of 5%-9%.  That’s significant.  Roughly 30% had a lift of less than 5%.  I did not see data for cable networks, but I have little doubt that most original scripted cable series likely demonstrate lifts of more than 5%.

The bottom line here is that as everyone is so focused on viewing to other screens, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there’s still more traditional TV viewing on in-home television set than on all other screens combined.  More and more viewing is not done live, particularly in prime time. 

While we continue to see industry research into whether or not advertising works (hint, it does), whether or not advertising on multiple platforms increases sales (hint, it does), there is virtually nothing on the impact of live versus DVR or other types of delayed viewing.  It’s not hard to do.  I’d love to see something on this come from the Advertising Research Foundation, the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, or the Council for Research Excellence.