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Why DVRs Didn't Kill TV

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The brilliant and ever-fascinating sociologist Gabriel Rossman has some brilliant and ever-fascinating observations about the nature of the television market. DVRs, he points out, should have two effects. The first is that they should drive up the advertising value of sports programming, because sporting events are not much fun to DVR and watch later, after you've already heard a dozen people discussing last night's game. Because people can't time-shift much, they end up actually watching the ads, which makes those programming slots much more valuable than your typical scripted show.

The other thing Rossman points out is that DVRs should make sports programming more expensive, but also less popular. As the price (including the nonfinancial cost of having to sit through ads, or at best go get a snack instead of fast-forwarding) goes up, then some of the marginal viewers, who like both sports and nonsports programs, should be substituting the cheaper scripted shows for expensive live sporting coverage.

And yet, as Rossman observed, this has not happened -- in fact, basketball viewership is thriving, and football is doing better than ever. How do we account for this mystery?

One answer is that I don't know. Another possible answer is that the rise of DVRs has actually increased demand for events that we all watch at the same time.

One of the most irritating things about time delay and binge watching is that you never know where anyone else is in the sequence. You start to talk about your favorite show, and your conversation partner raises a forbidding hand: "I am only through Season One." Even if you're willing to curtail your discussion to the early shows, it's often hard to remember exactly what happened when. So you have to stop talking until they're caught up, at which point you'll find that you're at a dinner party with someone who hasn't watched the show yet but plans to soon, so please don't spoil anything.

There is social value in live events that can definitely be discussed around the water cooler tomorrow. You can invite people over to watch a game, confident in the knowledge that no one has seen it before, nor needs to watch the previous three games to catch up. This might improve our odds of watching sports, and it might even improve our feelings about the activity of watching sports -- a bit of an event, like going to a movie.

If that's the case, then the premium would probably be highest on the events that are the rarest, which would seem to fit the pattern: Baseball is not doing so well, basketball is doing better and football is going gangbusters. This might be an area for further research, after I'm done catching up on "Homeland."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net