Is Sherlock's record viewing a sign of the times(hift)?
BBC1's Sherlock has broken a record for timeshift viewing, but Richard Marks of Research the Media argues that, as digital TV reaches maturity, growth in timeshifted and VOD viewing may actually be slowing.
A number of mainstream news outlets reported last week that the New Year's Day episode of Sherlock - 'the Empty Hearse' was the most timeshifted UK show ever. The show was a massive hit not just on timeshift/VOD (5.9 million viewers) but in terms of live viewing as well (6.8 million).
A number of factors may have combined to bring this about: viewers hoping (in vain) to find out how Sherlock faked his death; a two year gap between series stoking expectations; cinema stardom for the two lead actors since the last series; massive BBC promotion and a relatively late timeslot finishing at 10:30pm that may have had those with New Year hangovers reaching for the record button.
However, what was important from a media research perspective was that the final consolidated figure was actually reported by the media in the first place. It wasn't given as much prominence as the reporting of the Christmas period overnight figures, and the suspicion remains that it will take the breaking of records for the consolidated figures to be given as much prominence as the overnights.
Certainly this particular record had been in place for all of seven days since the Christmas Day Doctor Who in fact (Steven Moffat - king of 'timey wimey' timeshift?).
There is no denying that timeshift continues to increase in importance and it's not just within the seven day window. Since the Autumn BARB has been making 28 day timeshift figures available, a global first.
Whilst seven days remains the advertising trading currency - and accounts for 98% of total audience - for certain shows and genres audiences do continue to accumulate after 28 days. An episode of Sky One superhero drama Arrow added a further 14.5% to its seven day consolidated figure, for example. However, for most shows and genres the shelf life does not extend greatly beyond seven days.
Meanwhile it's thrilling to learn that at the CES in Las Vegas last week the world 'Binge Viewing' record was broken - 87 hours of continuous viewing provided by TiVo with medics on standby.
However, as the recent BARB 2013 Viewing Report makes clear, series stacking and binge viewing do remain very much a niche activity - people are primarily using their PVR to rearrange their week's viewing rather than squirrel away vast archives of back content for a rainy day.
This makes sense, because viewers want to be able to discuss programmes with friends and colleagues - certainly on 2 January I had an uncomfortable train journey dodging newspapers and snippets of conversation about what I assumed to be the revelation of how Sherlock did it.
Where does this leave the reporting of TV viewing? What are the figures that really matter? "
Arguably the most important insight from BARB's 2013 Viewing Report released in November is that people's use of their PVR does not increase over time - once they have mastered it they settle down into a pattern in which live - or near live viewing - still plays a significant role for most. To quote BARB:
"Simply put, if you had a PVR six years ago, you're probably not using it more this year than you did back then. The average percentage of timeshift viewing for PVR owners in May 2013 was pretty much exactly the same as it was in May 2007."
So what we are seeing is a growth in access driving increased usage and that is what is breaking records - timeshift growth driven by an increasing proportion of the population having access to a PVR or on-demand services on their connected TV set.
So expect that Sherlock figure to be broken soon - perhaps the real breakthrough will come when it is broken by a TV show not produced by Steven Moffat.
Yet with two-thirds of the UK population now having a PVR, perhaps we are now getting close to the natural levels of timeshift in a digital world - significant, genre skewed, but not skewering television and its basic model of advertising. In 2013 timeshift stood at an important - but not advertising-crippling - 11% of all viewing.
So where does this leave the reporting of TV viewing? What are the figures that really matter?
It could be argued that simply reporting the overnight figures as most news outlets like MediaTel do, is like reporting football results based on the halftime scores. Sadly that analogy doesn't really work - if this season's Premiership was based only on half time scores, Liverpool would be top and 10 points ahead of Chelsea, not fourth and four points behind them.
However, if we look at the rank order of the top overnight shows on Christmas Day and compare them to the consolidateds, then Mrs Brown's Boys remains - bewilderingly - our favourite festive fare.
Arguably then, TV ratings are becoming more like the theatre box office. It can take months for a film to accumulate its final box office, but by the end of the first weekend, most of the time you know if you have a hit on your hands.
As the shape of TV viewing in the digital age solidifies, arguably the media's emphasis on reporting the overnights remains justified - so long as it is not the only focus."
The other reason the overnights remain important is in terms of understanding scheduling. No amount of seven day timeshift is going to rescue Splash from the mauling it got at the hands of The Voice (now with added Kylie power) this Saturday.
The perception of whether a TV show is a hit does remain important. Just as cinemagoers may be put off if they read that the new Keanu film started badly at the box office, viewers may not turn to VOD or play back their recordings if a show is already being reported as not being a hit.
So skillful scheduling against the competition remains critical for channels and as Nigel Walley claimed last week in these pages, the broadcast EPG remains at the centre of viewing choices.
So, as the 'shape' of TV viewing in the digital age solidifies, arguably the media's emphasis on reporting the overnights remains justified - so long as it is not the only focus. It is human nature after all to want quick feedback and, as BARB data shows, live and same day viewing still predominates.
From a research perspective however, journalists reporting the ratings should bear in mind that the overnights are not the final story, particularly for the drama genre, so more frequent reporting of how shows are doing after initial broadcast - not just the record-breaking ones - will give a more balanced view.
Finally, let's not forget that the audience figures being used are not measures of viewers but viewings. The figures quoted are gross, not net, so if someone watches a show twice they are included twice in the ratings. If they pause and rewind that winning goal or cryptic Sherlock comment a few times then the same applies for those minutes.
So to be pedantic, 'The Empty Hearse' had 12.7 million viewings, not 12.7 million viewers - some viewers were repeatedly searching for more clues about how Sherlock actually did it!
Richard Marks is the Director of Research the Media. Find out more here.
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