Saturday, September 26, 2009

Recorded Programming Has Not Significantly Altered TV Viewing Habits. Will it ever?

Today's Hollywood Reporter carries an article on the impact of digital video recorders (DVR's) on television viewing habits. The article tracks a study on the topic, and makes a couple of interesting points.

First, although many homes (36%) now have DVR's as a part of the home entertainment system, over 90% of TV viewing is still done in the traditional linear sense. The programs recorded on the DVR are generally treated as alternative programming to be viewed when nothing better is currently available. In other words, viewers still ask "What's on?" and when the answer is "Nothing," then they turn to their DVR.

I'm thinking about what might drive that behavior. Perhaps it is the social aspect of knowing that when you are watching a program at its scheduled time, you're seeing it "first" -- at the earliest possible moment, along with millions of other viewers. It is an experience shared by the fans of that program - each in their own home, but watching together.

When you watch a recording of the same show at a later time, psychologically you know that those millions of other people already know what happened. You are no longer part of the "club;" you don't feel like a true fan of the show. True fans like to be on the cutting edge of the developments in our favorite episodic programs. The DVR takes us out of that club.

When other people are talking about the program at the office the next day, we don't want to be left out of that conversation. In fact, we will probably exclude ourselves from the discussion so we don't hear a "spoiler;" finding out what happened before we get a chance to see it for ourselves. We actually lose a real social touchstone by not having watched the program along with the other fans.

The other point which I found interesting was that even though many programs are available on Hulu or other services, 99% of programming is still watched on the television screen, and not on a computer screen. This doesn't surprise me as truly seamless integration of Internet-based programming into home entertainment systems is just emerging. (I had lunch with Jonathan Handel this week and he told me about a spectacular deal he got on a 1080p with integrated web access. With prices dropping so fast, that technology will surely spread very quickly.)

But when Hulu is just another channel on your television, will the true fans still have a desire to see their favorite programs at the earliest possible moment? Honestly, it's a phenomenon I had not considered before now. I have been assuming that digital technology would eventually eliminate the traditional TV model all together -- that programming would eventually just be produced and released for viewing at each consumers' individual leisure -- one giant YouTube of media. I had actually envisioned traditional broadcasting as a dying medium. In reaching that conclusion, I had completely discounted and ignored the social aspect of broadcast television.

Now, I remember sitting with tens of millions of viewers watching the final episode of MASH, knowing that I was likely part of the largest viewing audience ever. I remember the feeling of knowing that most of the country was simultaneously watching those images and experiencing emotions similar to my own. It was very powerful -- perhaps more powerful than the program itself. Yet, in the face of digital technology, I have been assuming that this "social event" quality of popular programs would be inevitably and easily sacrificed to personal convenience.

Sitting all alone at my computer, in a quiet house in the middle of the night, I am now forced to reconsider. Our actions are motivated first and foremost by our emotions, and perhaps there is an emotional component to broadcast television programming that cannot be recorded on the hard drive of a DVR or computer.

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