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.

Filed under: TV

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