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The Myth of Fast-Forwarding Past the Ads

Zombies attacked during a commercial break on the AMC zombie drama “The Walking Dead” last month. The flesh eaters were just about to feast on a man and woman when rescue came in the form of the Toyota Corolla, the subject of the 30-second spot.

The scene stopped some people from fast-forwarding through the commercial break — and perhaps that was the point.

DVRs are in nearly 40 percent of homes in the United States now, making contextual ads like the one by Corolla increasingly important. (Similar contextual ads by Unilever and other advertisers have run during AMC’s signature series, "Mad Men.")

DVRs have “quickly progressed from a novelty to an increasingly mainstream technology,” the Nielsen Company concluded in a report released on Monday that assesses the powerful effects that the devices have had on the television industry.

The report, intended for Nielsen’s advertiser and network clients, is by turns reassuring (people actually do watch some of the commercials when they are in DVR playback mode) and alarming (playback mode is most common at 8 and 9 p.m., when people could be watching shows in real time instead).

From the report, Nielsen’s clients can consider making changes to adapt to the on-demand behavior of viewers. Patricia McDonough, the senior vice president for planning, policy and analysis at Nielsen, said one change might involve the teases for local 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts. Since many DVR owners are in playback mode at the 8 and 9 p.m. hours, “you need to promote differently,” she said. “You may need to promote earlier.”

She added, “We’re definitely seeing people promoting things earlier than they did before.”

The Nielsen report seems aimed, in part, at refuting the notion that DVRs have no value for networks and advertisers. “Some people still say, ‘Nobody watches commercials.’ That’s not true,” Ms. McDonough said.

In homes that have DVRs and among 18- to 49-year-olds, ratings for the commercials for prime-time shows rise by 44 percent when playback within three days is counted, Nielsen says, noting, “this degree of lift to the viewing of commercials has remained steady for several years.”

Nielsen suggests that DVR owners are watching more TV and commercials over all than they otherwise would. It is true that among homes with DVRs, the ratings of commercials for some shows, particularly younger-skewing shows on Fox and the CW, soar by more than 50 percent when played back within three days, according to Don Seaman, a vice president and the director of communications analysis for the media agency MPG.

“However, they’re also the ones most likely to be media multitasking — texting, Facebooking, etc., during the commercials, using that as ‘down time’ to do other things until the commercial is over,” Mr. Seaman wrote in an e-mail. “Are we saying that they’re too lazy to pick up the remote to fast-forward? Far from it. They’re probably likely using commercials as a timing device to know when to pay attention to the TV again.”

Mr. Seaman noted that agencies most likely would not buy ad time in DVR homes only, so a look at all households was more representative.

Nielsen says that among all households, playback occurring within three days adds 16 percent to the ratings of commercials for 18- to 49-year-olds.

Speaking of the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, Ms. McDonough said, “One thing that continues to strike us is the dramatically different profiles when you look at the live audience versus the playback audience.” The playback audience, she said, “is so much younger and so much more upscale. Even though they are skipping commercials, they are the consumers that most advertisers are very eager to get.”

The number of homes with DVRs has risen for the last five years, according to Nielsen, to 38.1 percent in September of this year. If the economy were more robust, DVRs would be even more prevalent, Ms. McDonough predicted. DVRs, which can come with an extra monthly fee from distributors, are more common in higher-income households.

There are indications that the growth in DVR ownership is beginning to slow, although that, too, may be related to the shaky economy. Seven in 10 households that have DVRs have only one, a figure that has been unchanged for the last year. A quarter of households have two DVRs, and 5 percent have three or more.

Households with viewers who have owned a DVR for more than a year tended to spend more time playing back TV shows. This could be because earlier adopters of the DVR are bigger TV consumers, or because they have grown comfortable using the device, the Nielsen report said.

The number of playbacks in a household may grow as more cable and satellite providers introduce multiroom DVRs, which allow viewers to record in one room and play it back in another.

Of the programs that are played back within seven days — the length of time that Nielsen tracks — 49 percent are played the same day, and 88 percent are played within three days, it said.

Maybe the networks should be encouraging that same-day playback, which Ms. McDonough calls “near live.”

“If you’re that close to live,” she said, “you almost forget that you’re in DVR mode, and in that case we see that many more of the commercials are viewed.”

 

Brian Stelter, The New York Times. December 20, 2010

Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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