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Studio 60 on the day after next

Studio_60_on_the_sunset_strip The audience measurement firm Nielsen recently released year-end Top 10 lists in about 20 categories, including movies, albums and products placed on broadcast television shows. One of the more unusual rankings: primetime TV shows that were most likely to be time-shifted. Think of them as the shows intriguing enough for people to record on their TiVo (or, more implausibly, their VCR), but not compelling enough to watch live. Nine of the 10 were dramas or comedies, led by NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," a dramedy that has proven less attractive to viewers than to critics.

Now here's the interesting point. About 10% of "Studio 60" viewers have been time-shifters. The implication is that almost everyone who wanted to watch "Studio 60" and who could time-shift -- either because they had a PVR or they were adept at taping shows -- chose not to watch the show live. (That's based on the limited penetration of PVRs and the relatively low percentage of VCR owners who record shows, and it assumes -- dangerously -- that fans of "Studio 60" aren't much different from the TV audience as a whole.) Other programs with high time-shift percentages were "Heroes" (about 8%), "Gilmore Girls," "America's Next Top Model," "30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights" (all around 7%).

If I'm an advertiser, I'm not liking these numbers. Time-shifters are notorious for skipping commercials, although Pat McDonough of Nielsen Media Research says that PVR users still watch nearly half of the commercials aired. That percentage is bound to drop over time as viewers learn how to program their TiVos to fast-forward in 30-second increments. PVRs will become ubiquitous before too long, and if buzz-drenched shows like "Studio 60" and "Heroes" are routinely time-shifted, how long will it be before advertisers desert them?

The less apocalyptic view is that by that time, advertisers, networks and PVR suppliers (particularly cable operators, who need ad revenue, too) will have found other ways to entice viewers to watch commercials. As the Super Bowl shows, people actually like commercials when they're entertaining and/or personally relevant. The former is an elusive goal, but the latter is becoming more achievable all the time.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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