Videocassette recorders, the culprits accused of luring customers away from movie theaters and pay-cable services, actually benefit network television, an NBC researcher said Monday.
"VCRs provide us with viewers who would have otherwise been unavailable to commercial television," Bill Rubens, NBC vice president for research, told a gathering of the nation's TV critics at the Century Plaza hotel.
Rapid growth in VCR ownership could affect everything from the quality of commercial spots to future prime-time battles like the one coming next season between CBS' "Dallas" and NBC's "Miami Vice."
Though VCR use currently makes little more than a blip on the Nielsen ratings charts, recorders now are in one third of all American homes with TV.
Some highlights of NBC's research:
--The most-recorded TV show is the "CBS Sunday Movie," which on average is videotaped by about 530,000 of the 85.9 million TV homes. NBC's and ABC's weekly movie offerings also are among the 10 most-recorded prime-time shows.
--The entire NBC Thursday night lineup, from "The Cosby Show" through "Hill Street Blues," is recorded in about 350,000 homes. The only other weekly series on the top-10 list is CBS' "Dallas."
--Network TV shows account for nearly three-fourths of all home recording use. Video recording increases the audience of a prime-time network show by two-tenths of a ratings point, on average. (One ratings point is 1% of all television homes, or about 859,000.)
--The typical VCR owner plays back two to three hours of home recordings per week, compared with one to two hours of rented movie cassettes.
--Daytime game shows are not recorded in any measurable amount, "as you might expect," Rubens said. But soap operas on average attract two-tenths of a ratings point.
--News, sports and late-night shows are practically never recorded, according to surveys by the Nielsen ratings service.
Rubens' presentation counters the widespread industry view that VCR use cuts into commercial television viewing, as it does pay-cable subscriptions and movie-going.
In fact, Rubens said, VCR use may account for part of this past season's rise in total number of homes watching broadcast television by about half a million. During the same time period, Rubens noted, average ratings for the Home Box Office pay-cable service declined.
During the CBS portion of the semi-annual press sessions over the weekend, that network's research chief, David Poltrack, pointed to the ensuing "Dallas"-"Vice" battle as one where VCR use might boost the audience for "Vice" by a full ratings point.
Rubens, however, said, "I don't think it will have much impact on that race."
Rubens also commented on advertisers' fears about the effects of VCR use--particularly zapping and zipping . Zapping means that the recorder is turned off during commercials to eliminate them from the played-back program. Zipping refers to the practice of fast-forwarding through recorded commercials during playback.
Research shows, however, that zappers must watch the commercials even more closely in order to accurately time their excision. As for zippers, Rubens contends that even they watch two clusters of commercials for every one skipped.
Sponsors will likely produce "more and more must-watch commercials" with high production values to ensure their viewing, Rubens remarked.
Questioned about the zero-recording figure in late-night--given the reputed yuppie penchant for viewing "Late Night With David Letterman" over breakfast--Rubens noted that late-night TV ratings are relatively low to begin with, so the small percentage of VCR use in that time period is insignificant.
The Nielsen service currently credits the recording of a program the same as if it were being watched--but does not credit playback.
Thus, ratings increase for programs recorded for "time-shifting," or later viewing, but not as much as they might if more than one family member watches the playback at different times.
Rubens said that he expects Nielsen to begin measuring playback in the near future.