Since late last year, Australian TV ratings have also included data on people who record shows and watch them later. Which shows are most likely to benefit from that switch -- and why is the data about time shift still pretty suspect?
Soon after time-shifted ratings began, we noted that drama programs seemed the most likely to attract a "record now, watch later" crowd. That makes sense: Current TV dramas predominantly make use of continuous storylines, so missing a single episode makes everything that comes afterwards difficult to follow. There's also less pressure to catch drama on its first broadcast compared to "competitive" programming such as sport and reality TV, where avoiding knowing the outcome if you did miss an episode can be difficult.
Media blog Mumbrella recently ran an in-depth analysis of which programs had benefited the most from "catch up viewing" in the first half of the year. That confirms the trend towards recording drama: Of the top 20 programs which had seen overall figures rise once delayed viewing was taken into account, just one, The Amazing Race, was not a scripted drama.
Mumbrella's table orders the shows in terms of extra number of viewers gained, which puts Packed To The Rafters on the top of the list. The percentage of viewers added is much higher for many other shows: One episode of Midsomer Murders gained 20 per cent once catch-up viewings are included.
While these are interesting figures, there's good reason to suspect that they somewhat understate the number of people who actually use recordings to catch programs at a time of their choosing. Firstly, they include only direct recordings made to a PVR or similar device and don't acknowledge catch-up viewing via TV station sites. While that is a separate technology, the ultimate goal -- allowing audiences to watch a show at the time of their choosing -- is the same. (I also suspect this is why the ABC doesn't have many shows in the list: iView makes it easy to catch up even if you've forgotten to record something.)
Secondly, ratings company OzTam only includes viewers who watch a show within seven days of its broadcast. If you've set up a series link, it's often tempting to wait until you've got the whole show on your hard drive and then watch it on a lazy wet Sunday. That represents a fairly dedicated viewer, but not one who'll be reflected in the ratings. There's no obvious way to fix that problem -- counting every show that got recorded would overstate viewing, especially as multi-tuner devices become more common -- but it is another missing element.
The biggest problem by far, though, is that way the numbers are calculated. Mumbrella highlights the problem pretty neatly:
In order to count as a viewer for OzTam, only those who do not fast forward through the show or ad breaks are included in the consolidated numbers.
Let's face it: If you've bothered to record a show, you're not going to skip on fast-forwarding the ads if you get the opportunity. (Some people I know record everything they watch for precisely that reason.) And even if you're happy to watch the ads within your chosen show, you might well fast-forward at the beginning of the broadcast to compensate for erratic network scheduling. In doing so, you'll drop off the ratings radar.
TV networks rely on advertising for income, so there's some commercial logic in not counting viewers who aren't watching the ads. But as a measure of how we actually behave once we have a hard drive attached to our TV, it's not very illuminating.
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