Over the July 4th weekend, I went to three movies with my wife, my 14-year-old son, and my 70-something mother-in-law. All three movies, The Lone Ranger, The Heat, and White House Down were highly entertaining and excellent mindless summer fun.
Before the movies began, they showed the normal amount of ads. As usual, my wife and I had not seen any of the commercials, but my teenage son and mother-in-law were quite familiar with them. It's become something of a routine, where I lean over and ask my son if that's a new commercial, and he looks at me disdainfully and informs me it's been on TV for about a year.
That's because my wife and I watch most of our favorite shows on DVR and fast-forward through most of the commercials, while my mother-in-law typically watches live TV, and my teenage son does both (but likes watching the commercials).
My wife often jokes that she has no idea when anything we watch is actually on or what network airs it, because we time-shift everything, and essentially program our own network. The only programs we consistently watch live in primetime are sports, news, award shows, and off-network series like Big Bang Theory and Criminal Minds.
Commercial Avoidance Easier Than Ever
Commercial avoidance in the form of channel switching or people simply leaving the room, has always been a concern to television networks and advertisers. The DVR and delayed viewing, however, have made ad-skipping more widespread and habitual.
Amidst all the industry discussion about potentially moving from C3 (a weighted average of a program's minutes that contain commercial time up to three days after the initial telecast) to C7 (or for local TV, from live to live + same day), it's important to realize that looking at the percentage of live viewing remains the only way to know who is not fast-forwarding through commercials.
Over the past 50 years, there have been sea changes in what people can watch on television or video, how they can watch, when they can watch, and even what speed and on what platform they can watch. Yet since the 1960s, when three broadcast networks accounted for 90% of all television viewing, the way Nielsen measures the average minute audience to the television set has not changed much at all.
In that pre-remote-control era, when it took a minute or so for someone to actually get up off the couch and walk across the room to change the channel, it didn't really matter how the TV industry chose to measure viewers to the average minute. Minutes were simply averaged up to the program rating, and no one thought about any potential need for more granular data.
Today you can switch channels more than a dozen times in a minute, and nearly half the country has at least one DVR. Most DVR playback involves fast-forwarding through commercials. Current audience measurement is simply not equipped to pick up all of this activity.
We Still Don't Measure Commercial Viewing
Despite labels such as "commercial minute ratings" or "C3," the simple fact remains that Nielsen does not measure actual commercial ratings. Nor does it fully measure fast-forwarding during DVR playback. C3 can significantly overstate actual commercial tuning. There is currently no way of knowing how many time-shifting viewers are being exposed to commercials.
If you look at all the broadcast networks and the top 20 rated cable networks, there is some eye-opening data. For Adults 18-49 (as well as most other key age groups), only Nick-at-Nite, Adult Swim, and ION consistently have around 95% of their primetime audience live (no doubt because of their high incidence of acquired, off-network series). ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, on the other hand, generally have just between 65 and 80% of their average primetime audience live, while CW is usually less than 65% live. Most of the remaining top 20 cable networks fall between 70 and 90% live viewers. To be completely transparent, I do work at ION Television, although I have been writing about this topic for several years before I began working there.
Live viewing should matter to advertisers not simply for the timeliness of viewers seeing their message, but equally as important, to minimize commercial avoidance.
DVR penetration has been hovering around 50% of the country for a few years, and may not get substantially higher (as Netflix and Hulu Plus gain more and more regular users). But those who do have DVRs have a fundamentally different relationship with their television sets than those who don't. Even when they choose to watch something live, television is a different medium than it is to someone who has to watch live TV.
As cross-platform measurement is the research cause of the day, it is perhaps even more important to start understanding the dynamics of different segments of the home television set audience.