Are DVR viewings factored into TV ratings?

So much of what we watch today is recorded on DVRs like TiVo, and it can be hard to factor ratings into the equation.
So much of what we watch today is recorded on DVRs like TiVo, and it can be hard to factor ratings into the equation.
Photo courtesy of TiVo

Since digital video recorders (DVRs) have gained popularity, television networks have had to adapt to the time-shifting, commercial-skipping technology. DVR services, like TiVo, allow viewers to schedule recordings on either a one-time or recurring basis and watch those programs whenever they like. One of the major concerns about DVRs is that viewers will fast-forward through commercial breaks, but tracking viewing habits and ratings for recorded TV is a challenge.

A DVR is really just a large hard drive with a user interface that allows you to search for shows and to schedule and watch recordings, and it keeps up with network programming schedules by connecting to a central network where it downloads that information. Some DVRs also record a buffer of live TV, allowing you to pause live action in case you want to grab a snack or run to the restroom. But how do these boxes affect television ratings?

The Nielsen Company collects traditional television ratings data by choosing a cross section of sample households and giving these viewers a set-top Nielsen box. The Nielsen box keeps a digital record of what these so-called "Nielsen families" are watching. It's trickier when you throw DVRs into the mix, however, because Nielsen boxes have a tough time keeping track of what you're watching.

What many consumers don't know about their DVRs is that in addition to retrieving scheduling information, they also share data about what you're watching and when. You might remember the notorious Janet Jackson "nip slip" during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance. After the incident, TiVo released a statement calling it "the most TiVo'ed moment," as TiVo users paused and replayed that clip more times than any other moment in the history of TiVo up to that point [source: Reuters]. While that in itself is interesting, the underlying point is even more revealing: TiVo and other DVRs collect your viewing information, and DVR companies are even using that data to release their own ratings numbers for recorded programs.

How do DVR ratings work, and who's measuring them? Let's take a look at the most common DVR ratings services and how they measure viewing behavior.

DVR Ratings

Whether we're talking Nielsen numbers or ratings reported from DVR data, one of the biggest challenges with DVR ratings is that they don't come in right away. If you TiVo "Fringe" on Friday night but don't watch the recording until Tuesday, the network's ratings can't show your viewing activity until that time. Because of the time-shifting nature of DVRs, networks are now interested in ratings during a time range rather than just the date and time that the show aired.

Most networks use Nielsen's Live Plus service to track ratings. Live Plus looks at who watched shows on their DVRs within different time frames. Generally, it tracks three major categories: Live-Plus-Same-Day, Live-Plus-Three and Live-Plus-Seven. Each one looks at a broader timeframe, so Live-Plus-Same-Day looks not only at who was watching when the show aired, but also who watched the show that day and the next. Live-Plus-Three and Live-Plus-Seven track who watched within three and seven days of the original airing, respectively. When Nielsen first rolled out its Live Plus service, network executives were uncertain, but it's become an industry standard.

These Live Plus ratings can make a big difference when a large portion of a show's fans are watching on their DVRs. In 2007 when Live-Plus-Seven was starting to gain traction with networks, 23 percent of 18 to 49-year-olds watching "The Office" did so on their DVRs within a week of the first run. That's a big ratings boost just from DVRs, and "The Office" isn't the only show that's benefitted from DVR ratings. A January 2011 episode of "Fringe" jumped an entire ratings point based only on Live-Plus-Three data [source: Anders].

The Live Plus ratings system has changed not only how networks report ratings numbers, but advertising as well. DVR viewing is so common now that Nielsen tried lumping its Live-Plus-Same-Day ratings into its live viewing ratings. There were still some Nielsen reports that separated the numbers, but the company began reporting the data all together for its daily releases. The logic was that there's not much difference between a viewer who watches live and one who starts watching 30 seconds or even 30 minutes after the show has started. Advertisers fought this change because the ratings boosts from Live Plus meant higher advertising rates, and Nielsen now reports live and Live Plus numbers separately.

Methods for collecting DVR ratings data have been controversial at times between these advertiser complaints and privacy concerns from DVR viewers, but despite resistance, it looks like DVR ratings are here to stay.

For more great TV articles, check out the links on the next page.

Related Articles


  • Anders, Charlie Jane. "How the Nielsen TV ratings work -- and what could replace them." io9. Sept. 17, 2010. (April 28, 2011)!5636210/how-the-nielsen-tv-ratings-work--and-what-could-replace-them
  • Bachman, Katy. "Update II: Nielsen Modifies Live-Plus-Same-Day Plans." Adweek. Dec. 16, 2009. (April 28, 2011)
  • Currie, Jon. "Nielsen's live plus baffles U.S. execs." Entrepreneur. June-July 2007. (Apil 28, 2011)
  • Fitzgerald, Toni. "Nielsen bringing back local live ratings." Media Life. July 6, 2010. (April 28, 2011)
  • Hansell, Saul. "TiVo Is Watching When You Don't Watch, and It Tattles." The New York Times. July 26, 2006. (April 28, 2011)
  • Reuters. "TiVo: Jackson stunt most replayed moment ever." CNN. Feb. 3, 2004. (April 28, 2011)
  • Schneider, Michael. "TiVo takes on Nielsen." Variety. April 20, 2009. (April 28, 2011)