DVR Ad Skipping Happens, but Not Always

First Look at Nielsen's Just-Released Commercial-Ratings Data

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NEW YORK ( -- The industry got its first look at Nielsen's much-anticipated commercial-ratings data this morning, and the results are somewhat inconclusive. While the numbers show that audiences increase for both TV shows and the commercials that interrupt them when consumers use digital video recorders, Nielsen is keeping mum so far on how many people who use DVRs skip the ads altogether.
'The Office' actually gained commercial-ratings audience when it was watched via DVR within three days.
'The Office' actually gained commercial-ratings audience when it was watched via DVR within three days. Credit: NBC

"It's probably fair to say that the broad majority of people who use DVRs skip some of the ads," said Pat McDonough, Nielsen's senior VP-planning, policy and analysis, although "it varies by person, and it really varies by when they are playing it back."

Reason for slow start?
Media buyers expect to start using the data sometime in the coming year; Nielsen's decision to wait until the end of May to release it may be one of the factors slowing the start of this year's upfront marketplace, when advertisers buy the bulk of ad time on TV for the coming season.

"The irony of the DVR situation is that often the most popular programs get DVRed, so you pay a premium to get on the best shows, and you're mostly getting skipped by the most desirable demographics," said Steve Calder, executive media director at Mediahub, a media-services unit of Interpublic Group's Mullen agency.

Nielsen's data isn't yet being formally used to measure what marketers really want: measurements of how audiences view TV programs and ads on a second-by-second basis. Nielsen will offer an "average commercial minute" measure that examines ad breaks containing commercials from national advertisers.

More detailed data available
A Nielsen spokesman said the company would release very granular data to clients if they want to calculate how many people are skipping commercials for a particular playback period. But Nielsen was not compiling a "commercial skipping" file.

Nielsen estimates that about 17% of U.S. households have DVRs, and that 42% of broadcast viewing within those homes occurs through some sort of DVR playback. DVR viewing has already taken its toll on the traditional measurement of TV programs -- audience ratings. According to an analysis of Nielsen ratings data by Sanford C. Bernstein, live viewership among 18- to 49-year-olds of non-sports, prime-time programming at Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS was significantly down during the season, owing to more people using DVRs to watch their favorite shows at later dates.

Even so, the data Nielsen released today attempts to put some positive spin on the matter. "There's less commercial avoidance than perhaps we in the industry think there might be," said Sara Erichson, exec VP-client services, Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen lists 10 shows that actually gain commercial-ratings audience when the program is watched via DVR within three days, including NBC's "The Office," Fox's "Family Guy," CW's "Smallville," CBS' "Numb3rs" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy."

Average audience increases
According to Nielsen, the average prime-time broadcast program audience among households with DVRs increases 40% when it includes same-day DVR playback and 73% when it includes three days of playback. Audiences for commercial minutes within these broadcast programs increase 18% and 32%, respectively, Nielsen said. The numbers don't really say how many people may use DVRs to skip those ads, although Nielsen's data show that the increase in audiences who watch the commercials trails the audiences who watch the programs by a noticeable amount the longer people take to watch their programs.

Nielsen also noted that among all U.S. households, including those without DVRs, 90% of all broadcast prime-time viewing among viewers 18 to 49 occurs live, meaning that 10% is seen via DVR playback. The impact of DVRs on cable and syndicated programming is lower, with 97% of all prime-time viewing on cable seen live and 98% of all syndicated programming seen live.
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