SVG Digital Perspective: Live Sportscasts Aren’t DVR-proof — and That’s Good for OTT

By Brian Ring, Contributing Editor

Like many of my TV-industry peers, I fell in love with my first TiVo DVR: TV was so good when you could fully control the experience.

A DVR brings more than ad skipping, although that’s certainly appealing. It allows me to get more of what I want on my schedule, and it enables me to instantly, responsively skim through vast troves of content that I couldn’t possibly get through any other way.

And, yes, for me, that includes live sports coverage.

For years, the conventional wisdom has been that sports content is DVR-proof. ESPN Research’s Twitter feed has a widely quoted statistic that 96% of ESPN viewing is done live. And it’s certainly true that live content is less impacted by DVR technology than other genres.

But I’ve spoken with plenty of sports fans who not only watch sports off a DVR but are passionate about it. They’re in a minority, and it’s not something that always works if you’re watching with others. But it’s just as clear that, for some subset of the population, it’s an ideal, habit-forming media experience.

Admittedly, I’m one of those people.

Thanks to the DVR, my family watches much more baseball than we have time for. And it also makes watching it more fun. We replay highlights. We use slo-mo to decide whether a call will stand or not. We use it for Little League teaching moments. And, sometimes, we play a silly game called “freeze frame”: we pause the feed when CSN Bay Area reporter Amy Gutierrez comes on, just to see if we can capture a funny face.

I’m also a market-research geek, and so, on one hot August day, I decided to find out how many people enjoy watching sports off a DVR. The answer may surprise you.

Digital1My guess is that 23 million TV viewers regularly use their DVR to watch and control live sports coverage on a small time delay. And, for almost 9 million of that group, it’s the only way they watch.

I used Google Consumer Surveys to conduct this research; readers can check the data for themselves. Here’s a quick summary of how I arrived at the 23 million.

First, I screened respondents by asking, “Do you watch TV using a DVR?” Of 473 responses, 37.4% were yes. Using a widely quoted Nielsen stat that there are 283 million TV viewers in the U.S., we can extrapolate to roughly 105.8 million DVR users.

Of the 177 who responded yes, I then asked, “Do you watch sports on the DVR and use a small time delay to condense the game and skip ads?” 42.4% said, “Yes” — representing a possible 44.9 million people. Finally, I sought to narrow that number to habitual users, or people who watch sports this way at least on a weekly basis if not exclusively.

Digital2So I asked, “How often do you use your DVR to watch and control live sports in this fashion?” 20% of that sample selected “It’s the only way I watch,” and another 32% reported “Probably once or twice a week.” Adding those two responses gets you to 52% of that 44.9 million. or roughly 23 million people.

Granted, the sample sizes were small on that last question, so I do take these numbers with a grain of salt.

But, to my mind, those numbers don’t qualify sports as “DVR-proof.” It got me thinking: here’s a niche, passionate audience who loves watching sports this way, and yet no one has bothered to package it up in a targeted “uber-DVR” offer.

The reason for that is clear: the DVR hasn’t exactly been embraced by the traditional TV business. Today, DVR technology is mature and good but not ubiquitous and great.

Digital3After 15 years, my TiVo today isn’t better than my first, and that beloved consumer brand is now a B2B IPR-licensing business. The cable companies are rolling out cloud DVR, taking control from consumers in the process. And AT&T has acquired DirecTV, giving the latter access to a two-way data pipe into homes, thus eliminating one reason for DirecTV’s aggressive DVR investment over the years.

But I wonder whether any OTT sports providers will pick up on the opportunity to super-serve this niche. Clearly, live highlights, look-ins, condensed games, NFL Red Zone, and, especially, the new offer on Apple TV 3 are going to stretch the boundaries of awesomeness when it comes to sports.

Marshall McLuhan believed that any new medium contained all prior mediums within it. The example he gave was Tony Verna’s invention of the instant replay in 1963 for CBS Sports: “Until the advent of the instant replay, televised football had served simply as a substitute for physically attending the game; the advent of instant replay — which is possible only with the television — marks a post-convergent moment in the medium of television.”

Somewhere between app notifications, highlights, and the live OTT stream of a game is a responsive, super-DVR experience waiting to be rolled out. Only then can we say that Marshall McLuhan was right.

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