The Channel 4 TV Planning Awards 2006: PVRs

The arrival of personal video recorders was greeted with great gusts of doom-laden hot air, heralding the demise of the 30-second ad and scheduled television. What's actually going on, Claire Grimmond asks.

One of the big challenges in this dynamic multimedia, multi-platform world is how to make sense of it all. Every week seems to begin with another pronouncement that traditional media is fading in people's lives as the take-up of new technologies reaches the next milestone. The real story is how we are witnessing the merger of traditional and new media as the broadcasting world adapts to all the new opportunities.

Getting the balance right is crucial. We have to embrace change - it's not an option - but we also have to manage our understanding of new-media take-up in a more mature way. Research and strategy teams across the industry have a responsibility to inform and enthuse through insightful and revealing research, but it is important we manage this with care.

Sky+ is a case in point. Initial reports of this great device were greeted by the firmly held view that it would signal the end of 30-second spot advertising, the demise of the "black art" of scheduling and only live programming would survive. I exaggerate to make the point, but there was no doubt at the time we were facing a crisis.

Fast-forward a few years and we find ourselves in a data-rich world where we can fully interrogate what behaviours are triggered through personal video recorders. We now have nearly a year's worth of Barb data, giving us the opportunity to examine actual behaviour as opposed to claimed behaviour in this enhanced non-linear environment.

There are now more than two million PVR homes in the UK, the vast majority Sky+, but we are also witnessing growth in Freeview PVRs. Demographically, there are no surprises. Individuals in Sky+ homes are slightly more male than typical digital homes and are more likely to be 25- to 55-year-old adults with children. One of the clearest distinctions is class - they are far more likely to be AB than typical Sky viewers and tend to subscribe to the premium services. They are not particularly heavy consumers of TV, in fact watching about 15 per cent less than other Sky digital viewers.

The main issue is the role PVRs play in their relationship with TV, and this amounts to 14 per cent of their total viewing. Clearly, within this average, there will be wide variation between households, but it is some distance from the quoted predictions witnessed a few years ago. We must also consider the impact of PVRs on television advertising. Again, actual data presents a different story to how viewers think they behave, with slightly more than half of all commercial messages being fast-forwarded when watched in a non-linear environment.

We can also glean insights from qualitative research, both bespoke to Channel 4 and also from a range of sources in academia and the industry as a whole. There are no doubts that the PVR is universally enjoyed and lauded as a genuinely innovative and useful device; it is a simple technology that gives the viewer control. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that while some viewers want complete control, many see television as a medium that brings order to the content chaos that exists on the digital highway. They welcome the opportunity to enjoy a richer TV experience; it means they will never miss an episode of their favourite soap, but it doesn't mean they develop an inclination to self-schedule their entire television repertoire.

Similarly, a super-controlled world without television advertising is an interesting concept to people, but, believe it or not, ads continue to be relevant and enjoyable to viewers. The London Business School PVR research study reported high visual attention to advertising, and that there was even some interaction while fast-forwarding through commercial breaks.

Clearly, we must continue to examine the behaviour of the early pioneers of digital technology, and these two million households are a significant and important group to take lessons from. The big challenge remains to keep our feet firmly rooted in true audience behaviour and not in the murky world of short-term headline-grabbing hot air. The lesson of the last year has revealed the real impact of PVRs in audience viewing behaviour. People continue to have a great relationship with television and the PVR is simply a device to help them get more out of it.

- Claire Grimmond is the controller of research and insight at Channel 4.