Advertisers Beware: Audiences Are Taking Longer Than Ever to Watch TV Shows

Especially young, affluent viewers

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Advertising is still sold based on the number of viewers within three or seven days of an episode airing, but audiences are taking their sweet old time when it comes to actually watching those shows.

Alan Wurtzel, NBCUniversal's president of research and media development, discussed new audience behaviors Tuesday with reporters at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour in L.A.

Wurtzel's team conducted a study in July with 18- to 64-year-olds who watch at least one hour a week of TV programming on any device. Eighty percent of them said they they are watching TV much differently than they did several years ago (that includes 73 percent of adults in the 50-64 demo). And 86 percent of respondents said they are much more comfortable using technology to access TV shows than they used to be.

Delayed viewing is now "the new normal," said Wurtzel. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed said they no longer need to watch new episodes of shows when they first air, while 42 percent said they prefer to time shift their viewing even when they can watch programs live. Live viewing "is a choice, not a default," said Wurtzel.

He used what he referred to as "long-tail" data from the pilot episode of one of last year's comedies, Superstore, to illustrate these new viewing behaviors.

Superstore had a 2.4 live-plus-7 rating in the 18-49 demo, which doubled to 4.8 alternate viewing over the next four months was factored in. Wurtzel called it "a four-month phenomenon."

"This is a fundamental change in the way that people watch TV," he said.

Superstore's 4.8 rating in live-plus-119 was almost equal to The Voice's fall season premiere rating of 5.0 after 115 days. While you normally wouldn't equate an upstart sitcom with one of NBC's most-watched programs, "sometimes you have to be patient and wait to see the results of the viewing," said Wurtzel.

But given that advertising is still sold on C3 and C7, how do you make money off of that four-month viewing? Wurtzel has no idea.

"How you monetize it—not my job," he said. "But when it comes to things like promotion, the idea that you can just open up a show is not enough anymore. You may have to refresh people's interest in a show months later."

There are other behaviors of long-tail digital viewing that could also be attractive to advertisers. For instance, the median age drops—in the pilot episode of Shades of Blue, the median age drops from 55 in the first week to 35 week by week six of delayed viewing—and the median income jumps (more than $10,000, in the case of Shades of Blue). "I don't know why rich people watch TV later, but they do," said Wurtzel.

Audiences are watching more TV than ever—a recent Nielsen study showed that U.S. adults consume an entire hour more of media per day than they did last year, and that SVOD penetration (those with access to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu) is about to surpass DVR penetration in U.S. households. "The DVR's reign is about to end," said Wurtzel.

Viewers are more willing to embrace these new technologies, but they are being more discerning about which shows they watch. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed by Wurtzel's team said they'd watch more TV if full-season stacking, or the ability to watch all previous episodes from a show's current season, were available. (While only the previous five episodes of a show are usually available to stream via VOD or digitally, more networks have been pushing for stacking rights in their negotiations with studios.)

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they won't start a current TV series that has been airing for a while if they can't access past episodes or seasons. "That's a big deal," said Wurtzel. NBC has full in-season stacking rights for all of its fall prime-time shows except for Blacklist and Law & Order: SVU.

Wurtzel made waves during TCA's winter press tour in January, when he revealed Symphony ratings data for Netflix's shows, which enraged Netflix's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos. "No, I'm not going to fight with [Sarandos] today. I'm sorry," said Wurtzel.

While he didn't attack Netflix directly this time, Wurtzel did try to make the case that broadcast and cable are still superior to SVODs. 80 percent of content viewing that occurs during prime time is of cable and broadcast shows, while only 13 percent represents SVOD options. SVOD "is a compliment, not a replacement" to linear TV, Wurtzel said.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.