December 2, 2005 4:00 AM PST

What creature will succeed the couch potato?

LOS ANGELES--On the day after Christmas, a long-standard survey of people's television watching habits will take a first step into the digital present--and future.

For decades, the Nielsen Media Research audience measurement service has told networks and advertisers roughly how many people are watching, for example, ABC at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. But as a growing number of people use TiVo or another service to record prime time shows for viewing later in the week or for watching on a laptop during a flight, the Nielsen ratings have gotten increasingly fuzzy.

In late December, Nielsen is finally taking one of several steps aimed at adapting to this new audience. Ratings will be broken out by how shows are watched--live, later in the day or within a seven-day period. Over time, Nielsen will also move to measure viewing that takes place via iPods, cell phones, laptops and other digital devices that are gaining TV privileges. The company also will track audiences for on-demand fare.

"I don't even try to figure out what's happening today. It's more important to try to figure out where we're going to be in 10 months, and then try to figure out how to get there."
--Steve Schwaid, senior VP, NBC Universal

The steps are a radical change for Nielsen, reflecting an overall paradigm shift that's shaking up the television world. The audience is taking control. And TV companies are scrambling to catch up.

"Viewers are tearing down the technological walls that once isolated their TV sets," Nielsen CEO Susan Whiting said Thursday at the Digital Entertainment and Media Expo here. "They represent formidable challenges, especially the younger generation, who are often more comfortable with change than their elders."

Indeed, what's increasingly evident in television's rush into the digital age is that the archetypal couch potato may be an endangered species. How companies react to this new kind of viewer, one who's increasingly as active as a video-game player, will recast the foundations of the media business over the next decade.

Executives at digital video recorder company TiVo have had a ringside seat as the change has unfolded, being able to track every click and button push of their customers' remote controls. What they've seen surprises even them. The average TiVo household clicks a button 350 times a day, and more than 70 percent of viewing involves skipping ads, said Chief Executive Officer Tom Rogers.

What that shows is convergence: not the traditional idea that a TV is becoming a computer, or vice versa, but that consumers' use of both is converging on an active engagement with content, he said.

"There has been a sense that the TV viewer is a leaning-back, passive person, and that the PC is a leaning-forward, active experience," Rogers said. "In fact, the TV viewer is increasingly active, not passive, about viewing."

Money flowing, but confusion reigns
Myriad technological means to feed this hunger for activity are now arising, and a few companies are well positioned to benefit substantially from the change in habits.

Despite staunch competition from cable and satellite TV companies that offer their own digital video recording services, TiVo remains at the forefront of the trend.

In the last several weeks alone, the company has announced that it is working with a number of businesses, including Intel, Sony and Apple Computer, that aim to bring recorded programs to portable devices and laptops. TiVo is now sharply focused on using its device's broadband connection to the Net to help viewers find and organize content from sources other than their TV, Rogers said.

CONTINUED: An explosion of content…
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Missing the point?
In most articles like this, discussing changes in viewing habits, it seems that the most obvious point is skimmed-over: that television viewers are frustrated with the GLUT of commercials and "promotions" that are forced on them by the TV networks! Can anyone suggest that the success of TiVo and other DVR companies is NOT the result of a desire to SKIP the commercials?!?

The commercial networks are obviously in a panic over finding a way to placate their advertisers, who seem to be casting a blind eye to the situation. How can the networks afford to pay the multi-million dollar salaries to their talking heads if they can't keep their advertisers happy?

The truth is, we now only get about 40 minutes of entertainment, and 20 minutes of commercials. That's ONE-THIRD commercials, folks! It seems to me that GREED has overcome common sense. Do any of those network honchos really THINK that people are watching those annoying commercials just so they can get tiny 6-minute doses of their shows before the commercial-barrage starts up again?

Something's gotta give, folks, and I think it's going to the demise of "free" network TV. There's no way they can go back now, because too much money is at stake.
Posted by bob_c (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Couch Potato will remain king.
"At the moment, the primary platform, the driver of content, is the TV," said Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group. "Watching something on a computer is very different than sitting comfortably on the couch at 9 o'clock."

This is absolutely correct. Viewing video content on mobile-devises will always be secondary to viewing such content in the comfort of the living room couch.

Fortunately, there are a number of companies that realize this fact and are actively taking steps to insure that, however the content is accessed (be it via satellite, cable or Internet), the viewer will watch the programming where they always have -- in front of their TVs.

And the fact that the Internet is now totally accessible on their TV is a benefit that savy consumers will soon take advantage of ( see <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> )

For further details on why this convergence is taking place, see <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by ppdeagle (12 comments )
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New Media
I agree the TV will be king, until DSL, cable gets more bandwith so that buffering becomes a thing of the past.
Posted by paulsecic (298 comments )
Link Flag
Uh wha? WebTV?!?
"And the fact that the Internet is now totally accessible on their TV is a benefit that savy consumers will soon take advantage of ( see <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> )"

Where were you when WebTV came and went? Sega Dreamcast perhaps? I've been on the web on my television, and I'll tell ya', it's not pretty...

Viewing the web on anything other than a PC is a pain (whether it's a television, PDA, or Playstation Portable). The truly passionate should discover wi-fi enabled laptops. Everyone else should be content with taking that long trip to the desk chair. Geez.
Posted by DraconumPB (229 comments )
Link Flag
Go Potato!
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by 208774626618253979477959487856 (176 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Leaving behind
Again the middle aged American is left behind in TV viewing. We make up the majority of TV viewers and get thought of as the least important. Younger Americans are out in the evening doing something else and TV programers think we want to watch garbage on TV. No wonder Neilson gets it all wrong.
Posted by Richie (21 comments )
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Re: Missing the point
This is also true of cable t.v., satellite, or any other method by which we receive signals. We are forced to watch commercials even though we may be paying extra to have access to television. I am unsure that there is any escape from the growing amount of commercial time.
Posted by djimm (1 comment )
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