TV’s Time Warp

May 4, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Will an on-demand world, in which viewers can watch what they want when they want, drive schedulers to therapy?

Television executives say traditional network schedules will remain the dominant programming paradigm for some time. But HBO’s series “In Treatment” may provide a look into the future.

The critically acclaimed series starring Gabriel Byrne averaged 2 million viewers per episode.

The wrinkle: HBO says only 12% of them saw episodes in the weeknight prime-time slots in which they made their debuts.

HBO airs its shows multiple times, on its main network and its multiplex channels. Most of the people who watched “In Treatment”—68%, in fact—watched it during a subsequent airing.

Another 9% saw it on digital video recorders. Another 7% watched the show on HBO On-Demand through their cable operators and another 4% saw the show through a digital provider, including HBO.com, iTunes, Amazon Unbox or an affiliated Web Site.

Subscribers will be able to watch more shows online as HBO for Broadband rolls out.

“We create programs that we think people want to watch, and then we let them watch where and when and how they want,” said Dave Baldwin, executive VP of program planning at HBO. “If I were scheduling one of the major networks, contemplating the changes in platforms and technology, I would look to get my resume in order and try to get out of there.”

Not so fast, say other network schedulers.

“The majority of people still watch television the old-fashioned way,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP of strategic program planning and research at Fox. “That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that way. But I believe that in the short run, or as long as I have to worry about it, which is another three or four years, what I do I have to do the way I’ve always done it.”

Streaming Up

Since ABC made a deal to put its shows on iTunes in 2005, the number of ways viewers can watch has exploded. While the vast majority of viewers still watch their shows on television, ABC said it has streamed 300 million episodes of its shows on ABC.com since September 2006. Streams are up 147% this year through March. Shows also are available via VOD, Xbox and mobile services.

“We want people to watch, period,” said Wendell Foster, vice president of multiplatform, program planning and scheduling for ABC Entertainment. “We’ve gone from one place to watch television to a seemingly endless number of places to watch television. And it really seemed to happen within the last 12 to 18 months.”

So far, Mr. Foster said, he has seen no signs the new distribution platforms are cannibalizing the network’s business.

“My sense is that when you aggregate all of these, I think we’re right where we want to be. Everybody who wants to see our shows has the opportunity,” he said.

In a programming experiment that moves against the trend of making shows available everywhere, all the time, The CW this month decided to hold back its hit show “Gossip Girl” from the Web, forcing viewers to tune in on TV or record the show with a DVR or VCR.

Ratings for “Gossip Girl” have risen during the first two weeks of the five-week test. But CW executives say it’s too soon to figure out whether the rise is attributable to a change in scheduling, increased marketing support or the Internet blackout. The program is still available for purchase on iTunes.

Before the 100-day Writers Guild of America strike, which began in November, the last two episodes of “Gossip Girl” had 2.2 million viewers, and the show was averaging more than 100,000 streams from The CW Web site. In the show’s first two weeks back on the TV schedule, “Gossip Girl” attracted 2.5 million viewers, then 2.53 million.

“The goal for us is to get people to the TV set,” a CW spokesman said.

Mr. Baldwin acknowledges that HBO’s situation is different from most networks because it isn’t ad-supported. Broadcast shows face a different kind of challenge than premium TV services like HBO, attempting to get a mass audience in one shot for sponsors. It’s a job that is becoming more and more difficult.

Those advertisers don’t only want to reach viewers with DVRs or access to video-on-demand.

“Yes, schedules matter,” said Shari Anne Brill, VP for programming at media buyer Carat. “It matters to the 76% of the world that doesn’t have a DVR. You’re still wedded to when the telecast gets fed.”

Delayed ‘Geek’ Viewing

Still, there are 14 prime-time shows, headed by “Beauty and the Geek,” “Lost” and “Big Brother,” which have more than 20% of their viewing done on a delayed basis using DVRs, according to Nielsen.

That means a network like Sci Fi Channel, whose viewership is rich in tech-savvy early adopters, needs to adopt DVR-friendly approaches to scheduling.

“A lot of people in the industry talk about the DVR as their enemy. You can’t think about the future and future technologies as the enemy. You’re not going to be able to smite it. The DVR is here to stay,” said Thomas Vitale, senior VP for programming and original movies at Sci Fi.

Early on, Sci Fi switched from stripping shows across the week to stacking episodes of the same show or similar shows each night to create programming events that might make for appointment viewing.

“People organize their lives around what they do different nights, as opposed to, ‘Every night at 9 I do this,’” Mr. Vitale said.

With schedules that are simple to remember, such as originals on Friday or reality shows on Wednesday, viewers are less likely to use a DVR to organize their viewing.

DVR use has helped Sci Fi. With the new C3 ratings system measuring commercial watching during an original broadcast plus three days of delayed viewing, Sci Fi picks up viewers. And the data shows Sci Fi viewers tend to watch commercials during playback, Mr. Vitale said.

Viewers also use DVRs to keep up with serialized shows.

“That’s another way the DVR is our friend,” Mr. Vitale said. “People can get more engaged with our shows.”

It is still better to be viewed live, so being the No. 1 show in a time slot live is important. That’s the case even if you have the same number of viewers when all the time-shifted viewing is counted, because viewers who watch live are much more likely to watch the commercials.

“You want your show to be the first choice because you increase the chances of its value in terms of the currency,” Mr. Beckman said.

In the old days, Nielsen treated viewership of a taped show on a VCR the same as live viewing. But even then, there was no substitute for a real-time audience.

‘Seinfeld’ vs. ‘Years’

When Mr. Beckman worked at NBC, he was involved in moving “Seinfeld” opposite ABC’s “The Wonder Years.” A friend was upset because those were two of his favorite shows. Mr. Beckman was pleased, however, because the friend planned to watch “Seinfeld” and tape “Wonder Years.”

“Probably, you’ll stop watching ‘Wonder Years’ because you won’t get around to viewing it,” Mr. Beckman told his friend. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the friend said he’d even stopped taping the show.

One challenge created by an on-demand world of delayed TV viewing is drawing attention to other shows in a network’s lineup. Even if promos for other programs aren’t skipped, the shows they’re pitching may already have aired, Mr. Beckman said.

For the TV networks, the big benefit of having shows available online and on-demand is that they give viewers a chance to keep up with shows they want to watch but may not be home to see.

“What a lot of these new platforms do is get people back to the set,” Mr. Beckman said. Fox’s research found that the No. 1 reason people come to network Web sites is to catch up on a show.

“They’re going back to watching it live or they want to find out when the next live episode is. So the primary use of network Web sites is really almost like a TV Guide,” he said.

When will scheduling no longer be an important part of the TV business?

“Magazines and books are littered with people who predict the future and say it will never happen,” said Mr. Vitale. “I’m not sure.”

Most Time-Shifted Programs
Rank Program Network Date and Time Persons 2+, Live (000) Persons 2+, Live +7 Day (000) Percent Increase
1 Beauty and the Geek The CW Tuesdays, 8 p.m. 1,577 2,017 27.9
2 Lost ABC Thursdays, 9 p.m. 10,468 13,334 27.4
3 Big Brother 9 CBS Wednesdays, 8 p.m. 4,833 6,131 26.9
4 America’s Next Top Model The CW Wednesdays, 8 p.m. 3,169 3,972 25.4
5 One Tree Hill The CW Tuesdays, 9 p.m. 2,702 3,327 23.1
6 Big Brother 9 CBS Tuesdays, 9 p.m. 5,315 6,538 23
7 Friday Night Lights NBC Fridays, 9 p.m. 4,976 6,078 22.1
8 Jericho CBS Tuesdays, 10 p.m. 5,826 7,089 21.7
9 Las Vegas NBC Fridays, 10 p.m. 6,805 8,260 21.4
10 30 Rock NBC Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. 5,303 6,427 21.2
Shows are ranked in order of greatest gain from live to
live-plus-seven-day viewing. Data covers the year to date, from Dec. 31,
2007, to April 13, 2008. Excludes specials.
Source: Nielsen Co.


  1. This is an interesting article. My family and I don’t own a TV, and we live in a place where the only legal option is iTunes, so the trend toward many options of online viewing is extremely relevant regarding the few shows we do watch (LOST, for one). It’s interesting to note, and might make for a good story, that iTunes has had a recent rash of late uploads. I am still chomping at the bit waiting (here on Monday) for last Thursday’s episode of LOST, so it’s not all sunshine and roses!

  2. I think it is hillarious that CBS continues to cancel Jericho, yet they keep their reality TV garbage that gets less ratings. Jericho is beating that worthless big brother in the ratings yet we have a great, intelligent, well written show get cancelled. Meanwhile we can all sit on the edge of our seats waiting for big brother 43 or survivor: compton or cooking with the b-list “celebrity” competitions, hey I know maybe we can have 5 or 6 more versions of CSI come out! CBS you reek.

  3. This article is interesting I am a fan of Jericho. I did watch live but was not counted with the antiquated rating system still being used by the networks. For the networks I know that they want a live audience but even if you are watching live you are not counted. Also the days of viewing are changing because our lives are more hetic and busy compared to 30 years ago. Technology has keep up with the pace of our lives but the Networks have not. So for now I will continue to watch Jericho on Fancast.

  4. DVR is how I watch television today. I don’t want to have to set up my evening schedule around when a network decides to air a program, that’s ridiculous. I just record the show, and then watch when it’s convenient for me. Why do it any other way? When I have the ability to download programming by internet, I’ll be doing that too. Not only can you download your favorite episodes and watch whenever you like, you can find older shows that haven’t aired in years and enjoy them as well.
    This isn’t a trend that’s going away. The days of Nielsen and appointment viewing are coming to an end…some networks are embracing the change, and some are still clinging to the past.
    PS: Jericho was a fantastic show. CBS really dropped the ball with that one.

  5. The old saying is “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Advertisers and TV network executives should learn that there are many, many ways for consumers to get video entertainment (and be sold to) beyond passively sitting in front of the tube. Their failure to acknowledge those viewers choosing alternate methods due to work and family schedules or availability, or to get a true count of those who do watch “live” can only impact their bottom line. I watched JERICHO live from the start. I’ve also watched it on line, bought DVDs and downloaded episodes from Amazon, yet I suspect my viewership on any of those platforms of this fine, thought-provoking drama wasn’t counted when the decision was made to cancel JERICHO — both times.

  6. I hope the networks soon catch up to the way people currently watch TV. It seems to me that, if programming decisions don’t factor in the viewers who watch online or on-demand, those decisions are inherently flawed.

  7. I am a fan of Jericho and never missed a live viewing, not the first one. The only time I watched one online is because our weather guy cut out 45 min on night due to a storm. A faithful fan for 2 season and I was not counted. I found out over the weekend my aunt was chosen for a Nielsen house. She told them see doesn’t even turn on her tv some days and they still insisted that she become part of thier system. So thats who is telling us Jericho is not good enough. It was the best written and acted show ever on small screen and it has been canceled twice. I just don’t understand CBS get your head out of the sand and save this work of art.

  8. This whole system is outdated. Jericho was the best show ever!!!

  9. I watched every single episode of Jericho live when it aired, but I was not counted by Nielsen. I also watched each episode again on DVR and was still not counted by Nielsen. So what difference does it make whether you watch live or time-shifted if they have no clue that you’re watching anyway? They really should put their energy into firguring out how to count those that are actually watching, period. I’m sure the networks will find ways to make fistfulls of dollars on every method eventually.

  10. I love Jericho and I can’t believe that CBS cancelled the show. This is a great show. I watch the whole season 1 online.

  11. lilmama: “my aunt was chosen for a Nielsen house. She told them she doesn’t even turn on her tv some days and they still insisted that she become part of their system.” How about this one?? My co-worker was called by Nielson and invited to join. He told them he DOESN’T HAVE A TV…….They said, that’s okay, he counts…..GRRRR, I watched (every episode of Jericho), but I don’t count and my show gets cancelled due to low ratings???? From what I read, I think HBO has been paying better attention to their viewers preferences.

  12. Thanks, good article, Jericho rocks.

  13. I too am a hugh fan of JERICHO. It’s very hard to understand why a show that is so well written, with characters that are so believable, and a theme that is so up to date with the happenings in the world today, with such a hugh fan base (many of whom are not counted in the ratings) would be dropped by CBS and a show like Big Brother is left on that is so obviously low on entertainment and without morals is left running. Get up to date Neilson, so many of us were not counted. Hopefully there is a very smart network out there willing to gain many viewers by picking up JERICHO and running with the ball.

  14. This is a good article. I am a fan of Jericho and under the current way you measure viewership I was not counted!!! This is the most intelligent program on the air. As technology has evolved to make things easier for the consumer/viewer. You the networks are being left behind for 2 reasons one you do not hear your customers when they are loyal and fight to Keep Jericho on the air and would follow that show where ever it goes and #2 you continue to lower the IQ for what you want us to watch like Big Brother or bore us to death with the same old formulated shows over and over again. So if you don’t embrace the new age of viewing you will be left behind. There is way to much on to wait for you the networks to catch up and keep the viewer.

  15. Because of my work schedule I don’t watch a lot of primetime television. So, if I get hooked on a show it’s nice to be able to watch it online or download it at my convenience. It’s unfortunate that this type of viewing doesn’t count with most networks, especially when they cancel a show based on the faulty numbers Nielsen puts out. Jericho is the best show any of the major networks had to offer, yet it was cancelled by CBS. It has repeatedly been one of the top ranking shows for downloading or online viewing. What does this tell you? The age of sitting down and watching television every night has come and gone. Our lives are too busy to be tied down to only that type of viewing. We want to be able to watch television at our convenience. But, more importantly, we want to be able to watch more Jericho. PLEASE!!!

  16. I’m Fans of Jericho in spain, CBS can not believe that is cancelled.

  17. This is another reason why television networks are way over paid! They are really not listening to the general public and what they are doing in order to make time for the programs they want to watch! I have never been so insulted in my life as when a network tells me that my opinion doesn’t matter when it’s my money that purchases some of the products advertised during their programs that I am either dvr’ing or watching online because I don’t have time in an evening to sit around watching television!! Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I do have time but when I don’t, I go out of my way to make sure I can watch the episode I may have missed. Doesn’t it matter to the head haunchos at the big three or four networks that I do go out of my way? Would they rather I just quit watching all together because real life has a life of it’s own? I would like them to tell my children that I can’t go to the after school extr-carricular activities because the tv show is more important than me seeing my kids play baseball or be in choir or soccer. Come on, give me a break!! I have been an avid follower of Jericho since it first aired it’s first advertisement for the show before it started and have stayed around thru the whole save Jericho campaign after the first season and now thru the second season and here we are saving it again! The network who has refused to jump into the technological age and understand what they have with their own innertube of television shows on CBS.com is going to keep going dark in the “ratings” because the just don’t get that people are going to make real life their priority and watch their beloved shows when they have time, not when the networks want them to….wake up and change with the times and forget Nielsen!! You really need to change your measuring stick because your stick is outdated and inconsistant!

  18. I think it is interesting that Jericho beat all but two of those shows in live viewers and one of those shows, along with Jericho was canceled.
    Something is really wrong with the system when you have a really good show like Jericho with a high live viewership, high DVR viewership and you still get canceled, while a worthless show like Big Brother, Beauty and the Geek and Amer Top Model that teaches nothing and promotes bad behavior, stays on the networks.

  19. The issue isn’t just the rating. Reality TV is cheap to produce. Scripted Drama’s like Jericho are not. If Jericho costs 3 x as much to produce as Big Brother, but only gets 150% of the ratings, it’s a less valuable.

  20. TV has become a major frustration – the networks are forever crying foul but they play games with the time slots – shift shows around that they don’t want to spend money on until they kill them off – they take shows off for weeks at a time and again viewers give up – they jam cheap crappy reality shows down our throats. It is not suppose to be this hard. Viewers/consumers have had enough and are taking a stand – we want quality programs and we want to watch them when it is convenient for us. At least when I set a program to record on my DVR I know I will have it to watch even if the networks have messed with it.

  21. What I’d really like to know is why HBO is keeping mum on whether they are going to have a second season of In Treatment. Those of us on the In Treatment member boards have written endless comments, send hundreds of e-mails, and: nothing. I understand the frustration of the viewers of Jericho with CBS. But I’m paying HBO for the privilege of watching them. Did they ever hear of a simple “yes” or “no”. They don’t dare say no, because they know darn well the In Treatment crew will switch to showtime and leave HBO high and dry. They issued the John Adams DVD so fast; and just last week we learned our In Treatment DVD won’t be available until September. And why did they take In Treatment off On Demand? Don’t they realize they’d get more viewers by leaving it there? Bad judgment. They are still running the Sopranos, for Pete’s sake. That’s been over for a year. Thanks for the excellent article. – a very disgruntled viewer

  22. Interesting article ¡:
    To seeing when they go away to realize the television networks that the traditional TV has changed and now we see when we can our favorite series.
    In Internet, in digital platforms … etc.
    And he does not want to say that that the series should not have hearings and should cancel them like that without much ado.
    The chains have more followers now when earlier, only that do not count them.
    A fan of Jericho in Spain.

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