Only 42% of the “Walking Dead” and “Big Bang Theory” audiences watched them live. For “Empire,” it was 56%.
Off-network repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” (TBS) and “Criminal Minds” (ION) got live + 7 ratings that were less than 15% of their first-run CBS counterparts. Yet both ranked among the top 5 most-watched series based on time spent viewing – 90% of TBS’ and 96% of ION’s audiences watched them live.
Since the advent of DVRs, there has been virtually no research (made public) on the “value” of original scripted series versus off-network repeats. This is not surprising ,since the broadcast networks don’t want to highlight the key weakness of their higher-rated series (less live viewing, greater commercial avoidance), while many cable networks that air both, don’t want to play one against the other.
For original scripted broadcast network series, the advantages are obvious: much higher ratings and reach, and high-intensity viewing. Original cable series don’t always have higher ratings than off-network shows, but they do tend to have higher reach and higher intensity viewing (I’ve conducted research showing that live viewing of original scripted series has advertising brand recall about 15% higher than off-network series).
On the downside, often more than half the audience is watching via DVR and fast-forwarding through most commercials. Nielsen does not specifically measure fast-forwarding, but every study I’ve conducted or seen has indicated that anywhere between 65% and 80% of DVR viewers fast-forward through commercials most or all of the time. I’ve done research that showed commercial brand recall being about three times higher among viewers who watch live versus time-shifting with DVRs.
When people watch something on DVR it is, by definition, appointment viewing. They are doing significantly less multitasking and other activities than when they are watching something live. Those who take the time and effort to DVR something are more in a show’s core audience than other viewers.
Off-network series are viewed mostly live, which is a significant advantage over original scripted series when it comes to commercial exposure. But the viewing experience is lower intensity. People watch off-network repeats largely when nothing else is on. They are most often a second-choice, fallback position. The majority of viewers who watch off-network series several times a week do so because it’s comfort food. Viewing tends to be less attentive.
Off-network series also tend to be heavily viewed by a relatively small group of people. If you look at “Criminal Minds” on ION, for example, it aired more than 600 telecasts last season. It’s one of the most watched entertainment series on television, but it only reached about 15% of adults 25-54 during the entire season. That’s an extraordinary amount of viewing by an extremely loyal, but relatively small group that is hard to reach elsewhere.
As the industry continues to move toward cross-platform and “total content” audience measurement, we should not lose sight of the fact that in-home viewing on a television set is still by far the biggest slice of the pie, and will continue to be for a long time to come. Understanding the dynamics of DVR time-shifting and how people watch and relate to different types of programming should be one of the most important topics of research for advertisers.