This may be remembered as the autumn that network TV executives fell head over heels in love — with the DVR.
Not that long ago, digital video recorders were seen as a threat to broadcasters' way of life, much as VCRs were seen as a killer for the movie business 30 years ago. How could any contraption that allowed viewers to skip commercials from sponsors be good for the television business?
But now, armed with special data from Nielsen, executives are trumpeting the big viewership gains their shows are seeing up to a week after original air dates. The so-called DVR lift has become an increasingly important part of the calculations of an eternal October rite, as each network decides which new fall shows to keep and which to ax.
"How different it feels with all these different waves of [audience] measurement coming in," said Jeff Bader, the top scheduler at NBC, which has seen big DVR gains for "The Blacklist," its new crime drama starring James Spader. "All of us are starting to really look at how we're gauging success."
Within a week of its Sept. 23 premiere, "The Blacklist" had been seen by an impressive 18.3 million viewers — with an impressive 5.7 million watching sometime after the night the show had originally aired, according to Nielsen. That's the kind of difference that distinguishes an also-ran from a hit.
"Sleepy Hollow," Fox's youth-skewing spin on Washington Irving's classic horror tale, saw an even bigger impact. The premiere audience rose from a respectable 8.6 million to a robust 13.5 million after DVR viewers were added.
That fresh perspective has TV bosses at every network feeling good about their fall slates for the first time in several seasons. Joining "Blacklist" on the roster of shows already picked up for a full season are CBS' Robin Williams comedy "The Crazy Ones," ABC's comic-book caper "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" — all big gainers in DVR playback. (Technically, "Sleepy Hollow" was picked up for a second season of 13 episodes.)
"All of network TV is having a better fall," said Dan Harrison, scheduling chief at Fox. "Everyone has some good news, which is in contrast to last fall."
Thanks to NFL football games on Sunday nights plus its singing smash "The Voice," NBC led the broadcasters through the first few weeks of the season in the critical demographic of adults ages 18 to 49, much as it did last season. In fact, all the networks are performing roughly as well as they did last fall among young adults — which in a world of heavy competition from cable TV, the Internet and mobile apps counts as a victory in itself. Total viewing is even up slightly compared with a year ago on the four major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
But this doesn't mean everything is coming up roses for the big broadcasters.
There have already been some high-profile duds, as there are every fall. On Friday, NBC canceled "Ironside," its low-rated retread of the 1970s detective classic, as well as the comedy "Welcome to the Family." Despite high hopes and heavy promotion, the network has drawn terrible numbers for "The Michael J. Fox Show," a comedy starring the former "Family Ties" actor, but has given it a full-season pickup anyway. Meanwhile, CBS has axed the comedy "We Are Men."
More troubling, the audience for broadcast TV continues to age. ABC, CBS and NBC all have median ages higher than 50, meaning that most of their viewers are now well outside the 18-49 demographic they sell to advertisers. At some point soon, TV executives will probably either need to change their programming or their message to Madison Avenue — or else make way for far lower revenue from advertising.
Meanwhile, the competition from cable networks is getting only more ferocious. AMC recently drew a record-shattering 16.1 million total viewers for its Season 4 premiere of the zombie drama "The Walking Dead." That figure included only the people who watched on the night it aired; the DVR numbers when they are released this month will likely make it much larger. As it is, those are bigger numbers than just about any show on broadcast except for "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory."
Analysts say that as important as DVR ratings have become, they aren't a panacea for the broadcasters. They certainly can't save a show that viewers have decided they don't want to see.
"Those shows with the highest DVR numbers tend to be hit shows," said Brad Adgate, analyst at ad firm Horizon Media in New York. "If the Nielsen overnight ratings are low, chances are viewers are not going to watch [the show] on demand in any platform."
But after several seasons marred by lackluster development and worrying ratings declines, the DVR is giving the network brass a reason for optimism.
Nielsen for several years has provided DVR research, which shows that despite having the ability to fast forward through commercials, most viewers do not. But the number of DVRs has reached a tipping point, with 48% of U.S. TV homes now having access to the feature, according to Nielsen. A year ago, the figure stood at 46%.
For decades, executives, agents and show producers would await morning ratings that would usually determine the fates of programs that aired the previous night. Now, a show's true reach is not known for up to 11 days.
"That's the three-dimensional chess we're playing now with all these data streams," said Andrew Kutbitz, an ABC executive vice president in charge of program planning and scheduling.
But the patience is worth it, network executives believe.
As CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl put it: "The fact that people are still coming back to network TV is a good thing."