TiVo: Who's Skipping Who?

It's only the first look at in-depth data from one of the most controversial TV technologies, but analysts say TiVo's new measurement service is, above all, a look into the future.

The DVR company announced that it would begin providing information on the viewing patterns of TiVo subscribers on a second-by-second basis. It will offer for sale a quarterly report developed by TiVo and Starcom MediaVest Group that looks at primetime audience behavior on five broadcast networks. And unlike Nielsen, which provides representative samples in half-hour or hourly blocks, TiVo's capabilities provide the opportunity to see what viewers are watching minute by minute.

"You'll actually be able to see not only what they do within the half hour, but whether they skip commercials or rewind and repeat them, do they pause at any time, do they zip through credits, etc. This really is the first time, on a sizeable scale, that you'll be able to study how people truly watch television in a PVR environment," said Larry Gerbrandt, chief content officer and senior analyst at Kagan World Media.

And the results, long-rumored, may not be pretty. Starcom found, among other things, that 77 percent of TiVo viewers who had recorded a primetime program for later viewing, actually skipped the commercials when finally watching it. Only 17 percent of those who were either watching live or near-live, thanks to buffering that can delay viewing for up to 30 minutes, also skipped commercials. But more than 60 percent of overall TiVo use was for to record programs for later playback.

"Watercooler" or audience-participation shows like The Bachelor or American Idol tended to have more live or near-live audiences and less commercial-skipping, according to the study of TiVo users. But general, leading dramas and sitcoms - particularly the CSIs, ERs, Friends, and Will & Graces - are being recorded more often and watched later, with the commercials being skipped more often as well. The irony is that the "Must-See TV" shows that are "appointment viewing" and that generate the highest CPMs, are also the shows most susceptible to commercial-skipping.

Richard Fielding, VP of research at Starcom, said it's not the end of the world as we know it for the television or advertising industries. Penetration is still low, but predictions are that PVRs could gain a foothold of between 20 to 25 percent of TV households within three years. Unlike Nielsen's data, TiVo and Starcom don't claim that this is a representative sample. "Is that actually going to change how people buy media today? No, it isn't," Fielding said. But depending on how fast DVRs penetrate into U.S. television households, it's a glimpse into how viewers will act once they get them. "What our study does clarify overwhelmingly is that when you give viewers the ability to skip commercials, they will do so, and they're going to do so in rather large numbers," he said.

For planners and buyers, Fielding thinks the initial value will be in the fact that no information like it has been available before, and thinks that it will help with negotiating sometime in the future. When the networks offer certain CPMs for spots that the DVR research shows viewers avoiding, it will help buyers get a better value for their clients.

The Starcom/TiVo study covered the primetime offerings from NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and The WB, including 70 different primetime shows airing from last October to this February, with about 250 individual episodes. It was a lot to sift through, and Fielding said there's more work to be done on how people watch television using TiVo, particularly in the areas of childrens' and sports programming.

Gerbrandt said the TiVo data would prove instantly useful to program producers and those on the creative side, who will learn how people use the medium and interact with content. It might take a little longer for planners and buyers to integrate this information into other available data.

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