Sunday, April 27, 2008

Timeshifting American Idol Out of Relevance: Users in Control

The LA Times wants to rain on American Idol's parade. AI, currently in its seventh season, has remained firmly at the top of TV ratings. According to Nielsen, both weekly episodes of AI beat every other show on TV last week, drawing six million more viewers than the runner up, "Dancing with the Stars" and nearly eight million more than TV's top scripted show, "Desperate Housewives".

You'd think this would be a reason to celebrate for AI, but according to the LA Times there are dark and dangerous clouds forming over the ratings champ. "Could it be that the singing smash, which has entirely reshaped television over the past seven seasons, is finally proving mortal?," it asks. The basis for this question is that "Idol" has slipped 7% in average total viewers compared with last season, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

Every popular show eventually slips, and perhaps it is AI's time to advance into the equivalent of broadcast middle age, making room for younger, more relevant TV programs. The LA Times cites "show fatigue" and says, "Some fans are seeing the program as less essential than it was a year or two ago."

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but I think there's a larger trend at work here. First of all, I believe Idol is retaining more of their viewers than the LA Times (or Neilsen's broadcast ratings) acknowledge. That 7% decrease in total viewers equates to around 2.2 million people, but what about those who "time-shift" the show? Nielsen is now tracking how many people consume a show not at the time it is broadcast, but at a later time by using their DVRs.

According to Nielsen, in the week ending April 8, 2007, 2.46 million people time-shifted "American Idol." That number had grown to over 4 million in the week ending April 6, 2008. So, the show lost 2.2 million live viewers and picked up 1.6 million time-shifted viewers. That's still a downward trend, of course, but nowhere near as bad as what the LA Times indicates.

The growth of time-shifting is far more than just an interesting trend of the DVR era. It should also be a wake-up call to TV executives and advertisers: Consumers are more in control of their media consumption than ever before, and if TV is to remain relevant (to both consumers and advertisers), it's going to need to change to reflect consumer wants and needs.

It's not that hard to glean consumers' mindset from the time-shifting data. Over 70% of the people who time-shifted AI watched it on the same day it was broadcast. Why? It isn't that this many people were too busy to watch it at 8 pm but found they had time at 9 pm. The reason is (obviously) that consumers are demanding and creating for themselves a better viewing experience.

AI has done little to change up its format over the years. Tweaks have been minor, such as shedding a cohost and permitting the contestants to play instruments. What hasn't changed is the format of the show. Each episode continues the tradition of bloating the running time with fluff. This week Tuesday night, the five remaining singers will give performances totaling less than 20 minutes during the hour-long show, and on Wednesday night, it will take AI 60 minutes to announce the departure of a single contestant. Those of us with DVRs will reduce those 120 minutes into less than 30 watchable and interesting minutes.

AI could become the first-ever case study of what happens to a #1 show that ignores the newfound power of consumers with DVRs. The producers would be well advised to recognize that a profound revolution in media consumption has occurred since the show debuted in 2002. Back then, virtually no one had DVRs. In December of 2005, DVR penetration in National People Meter sample homes was less than 1 percent. One year later, DVR penetration in NPM sample homes reached 11.4% and as of February 2008, this figure stands at 21.4%. It doesn't take a TV guru to know what will happen to time-shifting and ad viewing as this number exceeds 50% in four or five short years.

Without a profound change to AI, the producers could find themselves in a situation where both consumers and advertisers begin to defect in greater numbers. Consumers will grow weary of the enormous weekly time commitment and the unimportant content, and more will timeshift (or they'll simply tune out). Advertisers, recognizing that consumers are fast-forwarding past their ads along with AI's fluff, will begin to pay less for spots on the top-rated show. Thus, producers could get squeezed by both consumers and advertisers, a cycle that will of course cause the show to stumble its way toward cancellation.

There is an alternative, but it will require producers to recognize that the consumer is in charge and to introduce substantial changes to keep the audience engaged. I'm not sure AI's producers have the guts to do what it takes--after all, they thought that changing the stage set would be a big deal for viewers--but here are some ideas AI might consider to create the right experience for 2009 consumers:
  • Shrink the running time. People will tune in live (and watch the ads) for a tight, entertaining, and exciting 30-minute show. I think it is interesting to note that just three 30-minute programs are in the list of top 20 shows that are timeshifted.
  • Fill the show with content about the singers. Conversely, AI can keep the hour-long running time if they'd put the focus where it belongs--on the contestants. Simon's been grousing the show lacks singers with personality, but it's clear there are interesting people up on stage; AI's brusque "behind the scenes" introductions for the singers seem contrived and fail to give much insight about the real people for whom consumers vote.
  • Be truthful. Among the reason viewers are departing from the show this year is that they're finding more accurate info about the singers from the Internet than they are from AI itself. AI's clumsy failure to admit right from the start that some of this year's contestants have a professional singing past undermined the trust (and insulted the intelligence) of the viewers.
  • Get Interactive. Currently, AI uses the Internet for little more than promotion of the show. Permitting voting online would help to increase participation. (Some people fear online voting may be subject to manipulation, but it can't possibly be worse than their current system.) And in the era of growing transparency and user-generated content, why do we only get tightly controlled interviews with the contestants rather than letting them blog about their AI experiences, sharing the fun, the work, their hopes and their anxieties?
My prediction is that if AI doesn't announce a shake up in the format of the show, it will not be at the top of the Nielsen ratings by the end of the 2009 season. The show still has legs and could continue on the air for many years to come; after all, Survivor is still in the top 20 shows on TV in its 16th season. But the growth in DVR usage, timeshifting, and ad-skipping may also cause AI's decline to occur more steeply than for others top-rated shows in the past. The solutions are available to AI's producers, but it will take a recognition of a changed media landscape and some bold moves to keep the show on top.

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