Are DVR viewings factored into TV ratings?

By: Becky Striepe

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.

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  • 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)