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The widespread availability of digital video recorders (DVRs) in the home has changed television viewing habits for millions. In the US, more than 33% of homes have one. Now, instead of using VCRs and tapes to get grainy quality copies of shows for later viewing, DVR owners can get digitally pristine copies of their favorite shows, set the machine to record every episode of a favorite show, and delete shows immediately after watching them.

But, of course, the most interesting part of the DVR is the ability to easily fast-forward through ads.

For me, this has been a godsend, shaving easily 1-2 hours per week from my television time. In addition, I can skip some really stupid ads.

Initially, television advertisers dreaded the coming of the DVR. But, time after time, they’ve found that DVR use actually helps ratings and, oddly enough, might actually make people more attentive to advertising, according to the New York Times.

How can this be? Viewers now have in their homes and hands a tool that allows them to skip advertising with ease and get only the shows they want. How could those factors lead to more viewers and more exposure to advertising?

“The DVR was going to kill television,” said Andy Donchin, director of media investment for the ad agency Carat. “It hasn’t.”

The television experts were wrong at the outset, and now that things have turned out differently than expected, their interpretation continues to be wrong. Brad Adgate (really? Adgate? Yes, really.) of Horizon Media believes the basic couch potato hasn’t changed. “It’s still a passive activity,” he’s quoted as saying in the Times article.

But I think he’s wrong, and so does Rex Hammock, head of a marketing and media firm in Tennessee. Here are a few reasons why DVR use may benefit both viewership and advertising awareness:

  1. The viewership question is easiest — people now have a machine that timeshifts their favorite shows, allowing them to never miss an episode while not consuming expensive media like tapes or DVDs. If I never miss an episode and can watch shows broadcast while I’m asleep, with no extra investment or mess, I will watch more television.
  2. To escape ads before, people would use the time to use the bathroom, make a sandwich, make a phone call, or check email (more recently). In fact, there was once an urban legend about plumbing problems being cause during commercial breaks during the Super Bowl. Running at normal speed, commercials allowed for 2-3 minutes of activity away from the television. Sped up using a DVR, people don’t leave the room.
  3. Viewers have to watch the ads to use a DVR effectively. You have to know when the ads stop and the show resumes, which means watching the ads as they go by. Even at a high speed, the ads register. And people do watch carefully. As Hammock puts it so nicely, “Often, the person with the control is being judged by a second party for their finesse in stopping the fast-forwarding at the precise time it needs to stop, so, therefore a second party is also engaged in looking at the sped up commercials.”
  4. Television viewers like television, and they even like some television ads. In our house, the Apple ads are particular favorites, as is the Travelers Insurance ad featuring the dog worried about hiding its bone. There are others. We’ll stop for those ads and enjoy them every time. Again, we all stay in the room for these accelerated commercial breaks now, and stop only for those ads we enjoy.
  5. Programs that “get it” are going to do better. SportsCenter is a prime example. They’ve recently added a sidebar menu of upcoming segments so that viewers can reliably scroll through a saved episode and see the coverage they want approaching as it progresses down the sequence of items. Very smart, and my loyalty to SportsCenter has only increased since this innovation.
  6. There’s one other explanation, related to the behavior pre-DVR and showing how badly Adgate and his ilk are missing the story here — viewers do other things while watching television. When it was a passive activity, there was no way to control the experience with the device, so people would control it by tuning it out — leaving the room during commercials, doing other things while waiting for their shows to resume, or missing shows altogether. Now that there is device-level control, viewers are more engaged, less passive, and more attentive.

Giving viewers control over a once-passive experience has increased engagement, created a more involved audience at the other side of the “boob tube,” and made watching television a more reliable and rewarding experience.

The analogy with publishers I see is that print publishers used to enjoy the illusion that entire issues of their product were consumed, even though what they delivered was a relatively chaotic mix of temporally related material (things that came into the office at roughly the same time, but related mostly in that way alone). While the true innocents might have assumed that 100% of their hard work was consumed by readers, reader data regularly revealed the actual engagement to be much lower, from 80% on a sporadic basis to as low as 5-10% in some studies I’ve seen.

Now, search engines and other tools make it possible for users to find only those articles they’re interested in. Suddenly, the mass media of journals became controllable. But are we like the unbelievably named Mr. Adgate? Are we appreciating the paradox of the times, and the power in the paradox?

Users can now find particular articles or books at any time, anywhere. They can share them, contextualize them, and embellish them with local knowledge and insights. This is engagement — a more careful, attentive interaction with the content. But some publishers worry about what content is online, or how it’s shared. Yet, they may have no choice but to accept that users will control their information. And when the tools for control become as robust as the publishers’ tools for control, what then?

There is no way to uninvent the DVRs of publishing — Google Books, Mendeley, Google search, and others yet to come.

If we play our cards right, we might actually achieve more engagement from an audience with more control over their information consumption and sharing habits.

The challenge will be appreciating the DVRs of our industry and realizing that the paradox might actually work in our favor.

It’s going to continue to be a wild ride.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


2 Thoughts on "More Viewers Watching More Ads — The Lessons of the DVR Paradox"

That brings to mind another famous quote, from Jack Valenti (President of the MPAA) in 1982:

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.

I think it’s important though, to differentiate between giving control over a passive activity (watching someone else’s creation) and an active activity (creating something yourself). Despite the promise and hype of Web 2.0, the vast majority are consumers, rather than creators. This is an interesting chart, showing that even radio (a medium most of us assume is already dead) has a greater reach than the internet.

Also, I should note that my DVR has a button on it that you can program to skip ahead 30 seconds or one minute, so I don’t actually see the commercials I’m skipping.

In the UK, #2 was always the power surge caused by everyone in the UK simultaneously switching on their kettle for a cup of tea during the ad-break!

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