The growing popularity of digital video recorders is brightening the picture for network TV, which has been buffeted by steady erosion to cable.
"People with DVRs have the capability of watching this stuff whenever they want," says ABC's Larry Hyams, adding that the most-recorded shows have ratings 40% higher in DVR homes.
Take Lost. "Live" viewership was down 12% last season to 11.3 million viewers. But the decline was only 7% when factoring in those who delayed it but watched the same day.
Add those who watched it anytime within seven days of the initial telecast, and the drop is a modest 3%, based on new year-end Nielsen figures. The total audience rises to 14.7 million, a net gain of 3.4 million, or 23% of its total. Among adults ages 18 to 49, delayed viewing accounts for 28% of the audience.
The equation is similar for shows in competitive time slots. Thursdays at 9 ET/PT, CSI's live viewing is down 11%, but its seven-day total is off 6%. Grey's Anatomy is down a sharp 24% live, which moderates to a smaller (but still significant) 16% drop when seven-day viewing is factored in.
NBC's The Office bucked the trend entirely: The comedy was off 1% live but up 10% overall last season, for a total of 9.9 million viewers. And CW's Smallville is down 12% live, but only 2% with delayed viewing included.
CW's low ratings give delayed DVR viewing an outsized effect. Just 653,000 viewers watch Gossip Girl that way, but that figure is 24% of the show's total, second only to The Office's 26%.
Problem is, until recently, networks haven't profited from procrastinators. In a compromise, they can now charge advertisers for delayed viewership, but only within three days. DVR users also can more easily skip commercials.
Still, it could be worse. "The biggest challenge is apathy," says ad buyer John Rash of Campbell Mithun. "If the network programming is compelling enough for some viewers to DVR, that's a much better scenario than audiences simply not watching."