Does Tivo Kill Science Fiction TV?

While surfing around on these here intertubes, I ran across a rather long rant against Alexa and the way it used as a sort of Nielsen ratings for web sites. What was interesting, and what caught my feed scanner, was this little paragraph:

The Nielsen ratings struggle to account for PVRs. Since you got a TiVo, when was the last time you watched “Live” TV? This is part of why Science Fiction shows struggle on TV… scifi fans are early adopters. So we stopped getting counted and our favorite genres are butchered by networks and lost to the void.

The Cooperative Blog picked up on this and expanded a bit on it by saying:

So smart shows and very noticeably Sci-Fi shows are given the ax because of “low viewership.

The obvious question to ask here is: Is Tivo (DVRs) to blame for science fiction shows being cancelled?


So, the first thing I noticed was that no actual science fiction shows, aside from Firefly, were mentioned. Without more to go on, I’m left with looking at the current crop of science fiction shows along with Firefly to try and make some sense of the assertion. Let’s look at Firefly first.

Firefly premiered in September of 2002, and lasted for a couple of months before getting the axe from the programming geniuses at Fox. Much of the blame for low ratings can be placed on the Fox execs intervention in the show, from demanding a new ‘pilot’, airing episodes out of order to unceremoniously pre-empting the show for sporting events. Now Tivo broke through the 3 million subscriber count in February of 2005, just over two years after Firefly was cancelled. Given two years distance, I think its safe to assume that Tivo had, at most, just under 2 million subscribers, probably a lot less, while Firefly was on. It looks like Firefly‘s highest ratings were a 2.9/5 for the episodes “Safe” and “Ariel”. Even if all the Tivos in the world were on and recording Firefly, the rating would have barely touched 4. Shows with a 4 rating don’t last long on broadcast TV. And I don’t have numbers, but my gut feeling is that there weren’t that many cable boxes with DVR features available in late 2002. I know I didn’t have one and, being the tech geek I am, I would have had one if Time Warner had offered one at that point. So the potential for adding even more time shifted viewers is very much limited. The upshot being I don’t feel that Tivo had much, if anything to do, with the untimely demise of Firefly. No, the fault lies squarely on the heads of the Fox execs who didn’t ‘get’ the show. And, let’s face it, the appeal of Firefly isn’t as broadbased as, say, Buffy. I think those are the reasons for Firefly‘s death, and not Tivo.

But what about science fiction on TV now? Good question. I’m going to use the shows that I watch a lot of as the sample: Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Eureka and LOST, with a very special appearance by Jericho. What you may notice is that all of these shows started out with good to great ratings, only to see those ratings slip, some faster than others, with Jericho slipping off into cancelled heaven, until a literal ton of nuts showed up in the CBS mailroom. Unfortunately, trying to find the popularity of these shows in Tivo is very difficult. Tivo does have a most recorded list, but its only for the last week, and there are no archives I could find. But note that Eureka is the 12th most recorded show for the last week. However, no actual user numbers are listed, and the list is actually generated by randomly sampling 20000 viewers season pass lists.

Trying to find Tivo subscriber numbers isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I’m guessing its somewhere between 2 – 3 million, maybe somewhat more. I also can’t find any demographics on Tivo users, but I have to assume that Tivo users are going to be more affluent than most (they have to buy the equipment and pay a monthly fee), more interested in tech than most, and thus more likely to be interested in time shifting their TV habits. I’d say those characteristics fit a fairly large majority of science fiction watchers, but is it enough to account for ratings slips via Tivo usage? I’d have to say probably not, with any slip attributable to Tivo being minimal at best.

Things get more interesting when trying to account for cable DVR boxes. Again, I can’t find any numbers on the number of cable subscribers (including satellite users) with DVR boxes. I have to imagine the numbers are getting to be quite large (thanks for joining us in the 21st Century Tim!) as most cable companies offer a DVR box of some type, no matter how crappy it may be. But how many actually use the DVR feature? I don’t know. I’d say the potential is huge, as the number of cable subscribers was close to 27 million in late 2005. I can see how even a fairly small percentage of cable viewers recording a show could cause a slip in ratings. If ten percent record a show, that’s about a slip of 2 points in the rating. If its a popular show, you would think the percentage of cable subscribers recording that show would increase, with a seemingly paradoxical drop in ratings. So, in today’s TV world, I can see how a popular show, which is recorded a lot, could lose overnight ratings.

Weird, but does that apply to the SF shows I mentioned earlier? Galactica has always had a small rating compared to shows on the network, so I don’t think their ratings slip is due to a bunch of recording. No, its more due to the loss of focus during the second and third seasons. Heroes has also lost some of its ratings magic. Tim Kring has blamed that on the 7 week hiatus they took, due to the process by which a show is produced. I also think there was some natural attrition but I also think DVRing plays a factor. How much, I don’t know. The same goes for LOST. A lot of it’s slip can be attributed to the viewers getting impatient with the slow movement in revealing the mysteries, which can be blamed on its success and the network’s need to keep it going. LOST is still very popular though and I can see how DVRing can cause a slip, but I also know that many people are determined to watch LOST when it airs, as well as record it for later. Eureka falls into the same category as Galactica, since its on the same cable channel. I will note that it was the 12th most recorded show as listed by Tivo. Now lets turn to Jericho, which started out with decent ratings, only to be cancelled after the final episode. After it was renewed, Brad Beyer, who plays Stanley, asked the fans no to Tivo the show. Even the president of CBS said that watching the show ‘live’ is essential to its success. To which I say: ‘Your TV audience has changed its viewing habits, you need to adapt, or die’. Nielsen overnight ratings are no longer the sole measure of a show’s success. Nielsen, for its part, is trying to implement new, additional ratings to account for time shifted viewing. I’m not sure how successful they have been in changing the networks’ habits.

So, we have anecdotal evidence that, in today’s TV market, Tivos and DVRs may cause ratings slippage, which in turn may lead to an early cancellation. What I don’t see is time shifting hitting science fiction TV any harder than any other genre. Given the nature of people to record the popular shows, I’d think the bigger shows would be hit harder by Tivo-ing than any others. And as science fiction TV isn’t going to be at the top of the heap, recording those won’t make as much of an impact, at least numbers-wise. Now, a science fiction show, especially on Fox, will probably be under the gun most of the time, so any ratings loss is bad. I don’t think time shifting necessarily kills SF TV, though it may play a part. What is clear is that the broadcast networks need to figure out how to capitalize on all the time shifted viewers, or they will lose a ton of money sticking to the current way of advertising.

9 thoughts on “Does Tivo Kill Science Fiction TV?”

  1. I can count the number of Tivo subscribers who also are SF fans that I know on the fingers of one hand…and have four fingers to spare. I don’t think you can really blame Tivo. Execs love to blame everything except for the crappy quality of their shows or the crappy way they promote shows.

    Firefly was on a bad night, and, IIRC, got bumped by baseball or another sport a few times. Hard to build an audience when it doesn’t get any network respect.

    Battlestar? Well, I loved the first season, liked the second, hated the third. Maybe the show’s quality is slipping.

    Don’t forget they are also blaming gaming consoles, the internet and (probably) iPods for declining viewership. Heck, if they look at my Year in Books listing, they’d probably blame reading–I know I don’t watch hardly any TV anymore. In fact, since the season finale of Battlestar, I’d be hard pressed to recall watching even an hour a week!

    No, I don’t blame Tivo. I blame an overabundance of specialty channels and other things that fracture our attention (and therefore fracture the audience). And I blame lousy show quality.

  2. The original poster seems to think that Nielsen can magically determine when you’re watching TV, which is not the case. Nielsen extrapolates from a small number of viewers whose TVs have meters installed. It doesn’t matter how many people watch a show, live or time-delayed, if none of them are in a Nielsen household. SF shows get low ratings because few of the Nielsen households watch them; Tivo has nothing to do with it.

  3. I just don’t enjoy a lot of the sci-fi that’s on TV these days. I watched Babylon 5: Thirdspace the other night with my wife, who had never seen it before, and I was off-the-wall about it, even though I’d seen it before. And prior to THAT, I was giddy every week about Heroes.

    Other than that? Eh. BSG did nothing for me. I haven’t tried Dr. Who, it just hasn’t made me want to (and I may be missing a good thing, I don’t know).

    But otherwise, the sci-fi offerings are things like Erueka, Painkiller Jane…Atomic Tornado…C’mon.

    I also don’t get why DVR doesn’t count as “watching” the show. I mean, the box is “watching” the show instead of you, but the show is theoretically still being watched, right?

    I don’t know. I’ve wondered about it.

    Firefly was killed because The Man can’t handle good TV. And he hates me. Yeah.

  4. Here’s the thing: Networks and / or Nielson need to find a way to figure out how many people are recording shows via Tivo, Dish Network, Time Warner, Comcast, etc. Period. If Nielsons are only a loose representative anyway, and with the greater accessibility of DVRs…as you said, adapt or die.

    I DVR (Dish Network): Eureka, Lost, Battlestar Galactica (for SF shows). I tried Jericho but didn’t like it after 6 episodes (loved the premise, didn’t like the execution). Didn’t make it even that long with Painkiller Jane. I’m trying to catch up with Heroes on reruns until it comes out on DVD.

    I use the DVR to test the waters on new shows each season. Commander in Chief was decent, though not spectacular, but I gave it a shot. I DVR’d Drive.

    I’m watching the shows, some shows, perhaps “their” shows, but I will not watch them live. Commercials bore me, I’m spending time with my wife, we’ve got another show to watch on our other tv or we can have a wednesday night where we record six shows and try to catch up.

    If they can’t count me…well, that’s just too damn bad.

  5. Echoing Frank here – time shifting is irrelevant. At the time of broadcast, Tivo IS tuned in and the Nielson meter should record it.

  6. “The original poster seems to think that Nielsen can magically determine when you’re watching TV”

    Well, no. I do know how Nielsen ratings work, but they are the ‘magic’ numbers that determine ‘viewership’ and therefor ad buys and therefore money for the network.

    I’m assuming that Tivo households are represented in the same proportion in Nielson houses as they are in the general population. That may not be the case.

    “Tivo has nothing to do with it”

    Which is partly my point.

  7. “…the broadcast networks need to figure out how to capitalize on all the time shifted viewers, or they will lose a ton of money sticking to the current way of advertising.”

    Absolutely right, and the way to do that is by offering peripheral add-ons of genuine value to the fans of the shows via the inevitable supporting website and providing relevant advertising at that point, rather than during the show.

    Quick example: The Dresden Files. The US SciFi Channel website for the show just had (iirc) a few character photos, a couple of interviews, an episode guide… why didn’t they have a huge feature on the original books with affiliate links to all the major bookstores? Good for the popularity of the written series, which in turn increases the fan-base of people watching the show, plus advertising opps (one of the major online retailers might have been prepared to pay for top-slot and a logo on the links list) and affiliate earnings on the side… and that’s just a jumping-off point.

  8. I really appreciate JP’s “economic naturalist” approach to the whether low viewership for our favorite and oft prematurely cancelled science fiction shows could be caused by TIVO’s and DVR’s. Actually trying to put some numbers into the analysis allows you to call shenanigans on the TV execs who want to blame their woes on TIVO’s and DVR’s, instead of chaotic lineup switches, David and Goliath time slot matchups, poor programming, or good ideas before their time.

    There is data available to the industry indicating what shows are caught in the Neilsen ratings and which are TIVO’d. TIVO has been trying sell its data to ratings services since 2002, and has a service called Stopwatch that records second by second viewing and lets advertisers even see which commercials are the most popular. Neilsen, of course sees this as a threat to the status quo. The data is out there and I have to assume that TV execs know exactly what people are watching, how and when. Blaming TIVO for low ratings or just using the Neilsen ratings to gauge viewership is lazy or disingenuous. I would fire the president of CBS for only trying to game the Neilsen rating system instead of trying to actually measure viewers (all of them, Live and TIVO) and then showing that to his advertisers so that CBS and the advertisers can make money on a show if it is watched.

    By the way, the census lists 114 million households in the US in 2004 vs. the 27 million cable customers. Simplistically that’s 1 in 4 households with cable but not all have DVR’s. I can’t decide if that is a lot of people with cable or too little. I haven’t watched over the air programming ( I think they use an antenna) for 17 years.

  9. Doesn’t Nielsen do their calculations “old school”. Don’t the viewers have to click something or somehow signal that they’re the ones watching? I mean if a Nielsen box is in a 5 person household there still needs to be a way for the box to know which household member or members are watching. I think that that’s one reason why the DVR recording a show doesn’t register as a viewing. Additionally you must consider that people may not go back and watch all the shows that their DVR records so recording a show does not mean it gets watched.

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