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Can DVR and Streaming Save Scripted TV?

Since its mega-hyped debut, American Idol has been an unstoppable ratings monster. But there’s a fascinating article in The New York Times today that reveals it’s no longer the most popular show on TV. Recently, Modern Family has overtaken it — and its gain is thanks to the proliferation of DVR and streaming. The paper reports that, of the sitcom’s approximately ten million 18-to-49-year-old viewers, roughly 30 percent “time-shift” their viewing, watching episodes at their leisure within seven days of the original air date. And the effect of these new ways of watching isn’t just theoretical: “When the television season ends in May, what will matter most — for both networks and advertisers — is the ranking of shows once digital video recorder playback is included in the viewership totals.”

The Times goes on to point out that the nine shows that have seen the biggest “time-shift” viewership boosts are all scripted. So, why do DVR, streaming, and on-demand users favor narrative TV over reality fare? As Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan tells the paper, these options make it more possible for us to keep up with a scripted show — we don’t have to give up and wait for it to come out on DVD if we miss a single week, and we can catch up on half a season in a single afternoon if we feel like it. It also occurs to me that reality TV relies on day-of viewership because it’s so disposable: If we know who won or lost a given challenge, that really obviates the need to watch the entire — how long is any given installment of Idol now, three hours? — episode. On the other hand, having a vague idea of what happened on a specific episode of, say, Community or Revenge might make us want to see it play out even more.

Make sure you read the Times article, because it’s packed with thought-provoking tidbits, and then let us know if you think DVR and streaming will really wrest ratings dominance from the clammy hands of reality TV, once and for all.

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