The DVR Divide?

Early in the emergence of the Internet and the computer as a home accessory, the concept of the Digital Divide was coined to define a growing concern that developed markets would end up with an electronically disenfranchised underbelly -- a portion of the population without access to the Web and all it offered.

This divide was generally perceived - with good reason - to be largely driven by economic factors. However desirable and central a connected computer undoubtedly is, it remains a luxury item to those unable to afford it (though prices are nowhere near what they once were).

But the Digital Divide is not only economically driven. There are attitudinal factors that also come into play. Indeed, a household may possess a connected computer, but that cannot be taken to mean that an entire family is equally engaged with the Web.

The concept of the Digital Divide has been with us for a long time and is largely associated with the Web, but it's interesting to think how it may apply to the DVR.



Obviously, we can define the DVR Divide in the most simple terms by current levels of penetration (currently agreed to be around 17-20%, depending on your source). The issue of cost is undoubtedly less than it once was, especially since the cable companies have aggressively rolled out their boxes at a low entry cost (obviating the need for a significant cash outlay to own the box).

So what are the other factors that have kept the growth of DVR penetration at lower rates than predicted by so many people?

To some extent it has to be the complexity of the offering. Let's face it, it's not easy to communicate some aspects of what so many of us have come to love about our DVRs. Pausing live TV and then starting again without missing anything isn't something that is too easily assimilated by many people when it's written down or pounded out in a 30-second spot. It all sounds a bit too much like a time machine or something you once heard on "Star Trek" about messing with the space / time continuum.

Of course I say this as a complete convert to the DVR. It has an incredible impact on how I view and what I view, but it's too easy to wrap oneself in one's own experience and perspective. The most interesting people to talk to about this are those who could afford a DVR, but who haven't chosen to buy one.

A colleague of mine recently expressed the view that even though the cable companies are pushing out the boxes, it just may be that there will always be a significant percentage of the population that won't ever avail themselves of the opportunity -perhaps not too many more than have already done so - because they just aren't interested.

I'm not sure I buy the premise (but then I wouldn't, would I - I'm a convert), but let's just say that penetration tops out around (a randomly selected) 30% of households. And let's also assume that once users have settled into a pattern of use beyond the early stages, they fast-forward through around 60% of commercials (again, research to date varies on these figures, so this is very much a ballpark figure for argument's sake).

Under these circumstances, we would clearly have a two-tier viewing population -- and understanding the characteristics and behaviors of each become critically important. For example, if economics are a factor in adoption and a larger proportion of affluent viewers use DVRs, would we see a situation where advertisers targeting those viewers would come to regard the wastage they currently accept on TV as too great to bear, because of erosion of their primary audience?

Conversely, would conventional, non-DVR TV become more valuable to advertisers targeting less affluent consumers without the wastage of the more affluent viewer?

The fact that this - purely illustrative - scenario can work both for and against different advertisers underlines how such a DVR Divide is not necessarily wholly negative. It will work for some but not others. For those advertisers seeing less value accruing from such a scenario, no doubt different approaches to leveraging TV-based content will be tested and refined. We're already seeing such experiments start to happen.

There's another behavioral question relating to a subset of the population becoming habitual DVR users - what do they do with the displaced viewing time afforded them by their ability to choose when to watch their favored programs? Do they use other media, or do they fill that time with completely different activities (presumably they stop building their schedule around so much live programming). Although there is a steady flow of research being published relating to DVR use, this is a question I've never seen addressed.

There are, of course, dozens of other questions relating to the use of DVRs as penetration continues to grow. But if the two-tier DVR divided viewing population becomes a reality, then those seeking to reach and communicate effectively with both tiers will need to work doubly hard.

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