June 11, 2008

On Media - Is there any reason to watch live TV anymore?

DVR penetration in America is near 1 in 4 households. Stations now get adjusted numbers that account for their DVR audience. It’s a big item on the network worry list, because the main benefit is that viewers can skip commercials. 

Remember when all the rage was taping soap operas every day on a VCR? My friend Brandi’s been taping “Days of Our Lives” for 20 years. Her loyalty to the show hasn’t faded, but now she DVRs it. 

She’s not alone. Her show got a 0.4-point bump from DVR showings in May. That’s more than 25,000 people in Louisville. 

Locally, here are the top 10 shows, ranked by local DVR viewings: “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “American Idol,” “House,” “The Office,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Survivor,” “Two and a Half Men” and “My Name is Earl.”

So it seems like a lot of us know how to use our DVRs, right? Maybe not.

Take my mom. I’ve shown her how to record programs about, oh, 27 times. She hasn’t done it yet. She used to have a flashing 12:00 permanently showing on her old VCR. What’s more, I can’t get her to watch network TV shows on the HD stations, despite the investment in a fancy HD TV. 

You could watch “American Idol” an hour after it airs on DVR, skipping the commercials and even the obnoxious comments from Simon Cowell. But some insist on watching the shows live, even the commercials. 

So maybe my mom’s an exception. Media types are hip and tech-savvy, right? I asked a few of them about their DVR habits. 

Turns out, a lot of them are just like my mom. Carol LaFever, the G.M. at the CW, said she doesn’t have one. Same with LEO’s own c d kaplan (“If I can’t watch something in real time, I pass.”). 

LaFever acknowledged the importance of alternate playback methods. She said her network stopped airing full episodes of “Gossip Girl” after it was too successful in attracting viewers to watch online.  

P.R. gal Leslie Stewart told me she swore it off like a cocaine addiction, banishing the device from her home to limit time-wasting temptation. With work to do, she worried about becoming a Food Network zombie.

Red7e’s Brett Jeffreys and Bonnie Hackbarth of Guthrie-Mayes said they’re DVR-free, too. 

I tried someone younger, remembering that I had to get my 16-year-old son Josh to figure out my DVR. So I asked Erica, a production assistant at the CW, fresh out of college, about her DVR habits. Sorry, she said, she had no access to DVR. 

Steve Langford, the G.M. at WAVE-TV, told me that DVR has the potential to have a great impact, but he’s surprised it doesn’t affect ratings more than a fraction of a point. It’s not that big a deal now, he said.

I posed my DVR question to the thousands of readers of my blog and got back exactly one response. 

“DVR has totally changed how we watch television. We’re able to follow the shows we really like and still have lives. We no longer live our lives according to the TV guide. And, best of all, with a DVR, we can watch an hour-long show in 40 minutes,” someone wrote in. 

There’s always a showoff or two, like photographer David Harpe, the type experts call an early adopter. He’s a TiVO guy who last watched a commercial in 1994. 

“For the commercial-heavy Olympics a few years ago, we did something pretty slick. The live events would come on around 7 p.m., so we’d start the TiVO and head to dinner. Get back from dinner around 8:30 or so and start watching, fast-forwarding through the commercials. By 11 p.m. when the coverage ended, we’d be caught up to real time,” he wrote. 

Another friend of mine, Tim, told me the only thing he watches live anymore is TV news. He’s 29, and the guy you call when something’s not working. He’s even got his 9-year-old stepdaughter DVR-ing the Disney Channel. 

The problem for networks is that the schlock they’re putting out only motivates folks to DVR their way through their programming. I had to suffer through ABC promos about Americans appearing on Japanese game shows and normal folks bouncing on big red balls just to watch the Belmont Stakes live on Saturday. 

It’s a one-way trip to irrelevance as long as networks give us this kind of lowbrow programming. And it’s another reason to skip live TV. 


Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes about media and politics on his blog, http://thevillevoice.com.