Funny How Time Shifts Away

by Tanya Giles, Strategic Insights & Research, Viacom Entertainment Group

Interesting piece in Monday’s New York Times from Bill Carter and Brian Stelter on the sizeable shifts we see in the standings for  TV’s top-rated shows when Nielsen’s Live+7 ratings — or, ratings that factor in seven days of added viewing  through DVR  playback — are compared to the Nielsen Live ratings most commonly used to rank programming.

As their case in point, Carter and Stelter note that, while Fox’s American Idol and NBC’s The Voice still rule the roost in Live ratings, ABC’s Modern Family takes the top spot when we look at Live+7 ratings.

Love the quote from one of Modern Family’s creators in acknowledging this victory, because it hints at a broader trend that we’re seeing across our own networks:

“On behalf of all the comedies that were wiped out by ‘Idol’ over the past 10 years, it’s very gratifying,” said Steve Levitan, one of the creators of “Modern Family.”

That trend is how much strength comedy programming — in particular, sitcoms — gains in ratings when DVR playback is factored in. By all accounts, the sitcom — once left for dead — has made a Lazarus-like recovery across broadcast and cable. But that recovery is even more impressive when you factor in DVR playback.

Take TV Land, for instance — the biggest programmer of original sitcoms across Viacom’s networks. All of the channel’s sitcoms, including Hot In Cleveland, Happily Divorced, The Exes and Retired at 35, see significant double- and triple-digit gains from DVR playback in Live+7 ratings. In fact, Hot In Cleveland more than doubles its ratings in TV Land’s sweet spot P25-54 demo  as a result of DVR playback — that’s a higher percentage gain than any sitcom on broadcast, including Modern Family.

To be sure, DVR playback helps everybody out. Colleen Fahey Rush, our head of Strategic Insights and Research at Viacom, ran the Nielsen numbers and found that top and middle-tier cable networks in our competitive set get, on average, around a 15 percent lift in ratings from DVR playback. Many of our biggest hit shows at Viacom — MTV’s Jersey Shore and Teen Mom, Comedy Central’s South Park and Tosh.0, and the aforementioned Hot In Cleveland — far exceed that.

Ditto Jon and Stephen on Comedy. For as timely and topical as these shows are, both The Daily Show and Colbert Report see big gains in Live+7 over Live — 74 percent and 61 percent respectively. For Daily, that lift is enough to vault the show into first  place ahead of both Leno and Letterman among viewers P18-49.

What does it all mean? Are the web and time-shifting reshaping the paradigm, by tapping into a growing desire for consumers to enjoy comedy on demand? Or is it just an apples-to-oranges between sitcoms and live event or even dramatic programming?

We’ve been having this discussion in focus groups lately — why do comedies thrive in a playback world? What we’ve heard is that, while hearing about a plot twist or other outcome can damage a viewers ability to enjoy an episode of a drama or live competition show, hearing about a good joke on a sitcom can actually drive interest in going back and watching the episode. Viewers are more likely to go back to hear the joke for themselves, because a pro like Betty White will always “land the joke better than your friend,” as we’ve been told.  Spoilers can easily kill a good plot twist.  But a good joke?  Not so much.

The one thing for sure is that the sitcom is back. And, speaking as a serious student of television’s golden age, that makes me smile.

Tanya Giles is Executive Vice President of Strategic Insights and Research for Viacom’s Entertainment Group, which includes Comedy Central, Spike and TV Land.

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