Probst To Survivor Fans: TiVo Doesn’t Help Our Ratings


Over the years, I’ve had more than one love affair with a TV show. But no matter how much I’ve enjoyed epic hits like 24, Alias or Joey Grecco’s Cheaters, none of them have been able to generate the level of excitement that I feel when I watch Survivor. I’m not sure if it’s the Machiavellian nature of the show or simply being able to watch an assortment of characters who are so wacky that they end up making Gilligan’s Island look like the Love Boat. I love the show so much, that I even organized a home version of the game with my family over the holidays… and I ended up getting voted out 2nd for trying to emulate Russell Hantz’s bulldog strategy.

Because Survivor is the number #1 show on my Season Pass priority list, you would think that I’d never miss an episode. But every year Survivor changes the name of their show just a little bit, so that DVR subscribers have to resubscribe to each new season.

While this may or may not be hurting Survivor’s DVR consumption, the fact that the producers of the show haven’t noticed has always baffled me. It’d be like me changing my RSS feed every six months, so that only my superfans could easily follow my blog. Unless you like languishing in obscurity, this isn’t a very good strategy for retaining an audience or capturing people’s attention.

Recently, Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor, launched a blog to promote the show and other charitable causes that he cares about. On his site, he solicits questions from fans and answers the more common ones. While all tidbits about the show caught my attention, one particular answer jumped out at me. In answering the question of how long will Survivor continue to run, Probst says that the survival of Survivor is dependent upon live viewers because “TiVo doesn’t help us in the ratings.”

Now Jeff Probst certainly isn’t the first to suggest fans ditch the DVR, but I think that his plea is at least a little bit misguided. I’m not sure whether it’s because the producers of the show don’t care about the DVR ratings or the advertisers themselves. Either way, I think that there’s a lot more value to a DVR viewer then his answer would suggest.

Over the years, I may have fast forwarded my way through more than one commercial break, but I haven’t been able to avoid the product placements that are embedded in the show. I don’t know whether or not the show makes more money from these ads, but I would suspect that they do.

Whether it’s Sears demonstrating the utility of their Craftsmen line of tools or Sprint demonstrating how you can keep in touch with loved ones on their new fancy cell phones, throughout a season there are many times where product placement creeps into the show. While some may find this an annoyance, I actually enjoy this type of advertainment and it undoubtedly makes me more willing to spend my money on a brand.

During 2002, 24 introduced several cars during their program and I can tell you with 100% certainty that seeing those cars zip around in that show is what made me seek the out and ultimately buy my Thunderbird. When was the last time anyone could say the same thing about a car commercial?

Furthermore, even though I TiVo the show to watch later, because the program always leaves me wanting more, I head to the CBS website where I view all kinds of clips and interviews that don’t make it to television. Unlike viewers who are tuning into the show online instead of live or on DVR, these clips are additive and include lots of spammy pre-roll ads that I wouldn’t put up with if I didn’t stay excited about the show.

It could be that Survivor is so good that they don’t need to rollover their DVR viewers every season. But by ignoring this opportunity, they are losing the ability to turn their more passive fans into passionate ones. With DVR penetration now exceeding 40% of all viewers, this kind of backwards thinking will ultimately hurt them and the show’s long term chances. So while I can appreciate that a live viewer may be worth more short-term money to the show, I’m going to continue to time shift it in hopes the advertisers learn how much more valuable it is to capture my heart for 44 minutes, then it is to hold my attention hostage for 60.

Davis Freeberg is a technology enthusiast living in the Bay Area. He enjoys writing about movies, music, and the impact that digital technology is having on traditional media. Read more at Davis Freeberg’s Digital Connection.

10 thoughts on “Probst To Survivor Fans: TiVo Doesn’t Help Our Ratings”

  1. Same backwards thinking as any other entertainment content provider (such as the RIAA and MPAA) has been making for years. Media (both audio AND video) is going mobile, because that’s how people want to consume it – at the time and place of their choosing. Like the RIAA, TV networks and movie studios would rather cling to their broken old models and throw obstacles in front of consumers of their products than embrace change and truly satisfy consumer wants and needs. I predict that the first one of these content providers that truly makes the paradigm shift will destroy all the others in the process, simply by gaining the advantages of being first to market and getting the initial surge of customer share.

    Like you, I’m less put off by product placement advertising, especially when it can be worked at least somewhat unobtrusively into the programming. I’d much rather watch 22 minutes of continuous programming that contains product placements than 30 minutes of programming interrupted every few minutes by eight minutes of commercials.

  2. Probst is wrong. Watching live, on DVR or not at all has no effect on the ratings, unless you’re one of the few Americans that are actually participating in the ratings.

    What he means is that, if you’re part of a Neilsen Family, please watch live. But he can’t say that.

  3. What Davis said.

    Also, TiVo is a brand of DVR that has a relatively low market share. It’s not a generic term for DVR’s, although I’m sure the TiVo folks are happy when celebrities use it that way…

  4. I don’t think Probst is right actually. I thought that recently there was a compromise of sorts that allowed for or live + 3 days viewing to be what advertisers paid for. Sure it means that if you watch it two weeks later you don’t count, but if you watch it shortly after its taped, you still count.

    And he’s using Tivo as a scapegoat of course. Far more of the people with DVRs have rented them from their cable company than actual Tivo boxes. And if CBS doesn’t want people to watch their shows non-live why have they been allowing Comcast to put Survivor on On Demand since 2006?

    I think he’s mistaken.

  5. Does anyone know exactly how Nielson calculates ratings? Their website couldn’t be more vague. I’m sure it’s completely inaccurate.

  6. @Scott,

    Google, or in this case, Wikipedia, is your friend:

    To quote the part I was talking about:

    “Additionally, Nielsen provides different “streams” of this data in order to take into consideration delayed viewing (DVR) data, at any interval up to seven days.[9] C3 was the metric launched in 2007. C3 refers to the ratings for average commercial minutes in live programming plus three days of digital video recorder playback.”

    You can also click through to the footnote referenced, 10, for the article being referenced.

  7. Has anyone actually seen one of these “small devices connected to televisions ” they supposedly use?

    I’m still skeptical.

    We actually got a letter from Nielson saying we would be added to their polls a long time ago. We’ve received nothing to actually prove that will actually happen though.

  8. I guess this explains why science fiction shows seem to do so badly in the ratings since I would assume sci fi fans would be more apt to record stuff and watch it later.

    Which basically counts as not watching the show.

  9. If you have a Tivo, you can setup a Wishlist to record the show and not worry about the slight name change every year. If you head over to or, you can see how to do it exactly.

    Many people do this for several reality shows that change their name every year. I think Survivor & Amazing Race are the 2 main culprits.

  10. What Greg said. The simple way is you setup a wishlist for any show with Survivor in the title and then in categories like actors – you put in specific names like Probst. Done once and maybe you get a few talk show appearences by Probst – but hey if you watch each season of Survivor than that is technically a bonus :)

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