by Noel Holston
July 1, 1986
Flying home last week from a fall-season TV preview in Los Angeles, I got to talking to a flight attendent about -- What else? - - television.
She told me that she hardly ever watches regular programming, not even cable channels, now that she has a videocassette recorder. She goes to her neighborhood home-video store with the weekly regularity of a grocery shopper, rents cassettes by the stack and spends what time she has for viewing on movies, old and new.
She's the kind of viewer who once prompted network executives to chug-a- lug Maalox malts.
Note the past tense. Much to the networks' relief, she isn't typical of the public in general or even of VCR owners. Audience research funded by the three networks has convinced them that the VCR is their pal.
"VCRs have been viewed by industry observers as a problem for broadcasters," William Rubens, NBC's vice president in charge of research, told visiting TV critics in Los Angeles. "That's because I don't think we thought about VCRs very clearly. In fact, VCRs provide us with viewers who would have otherwise been unavailable to commercial television."
More people own VCRs than subscribe to pay-cable services such as Home Box Office and Showtime. Thirty-five percent of the nation's 86 million households with TV sets -- about 30 million homes -- are equipped with VCRs, up from 6 percent in 1983. But the new research discovered that fewer than half of the VCR owners rent even one cassette per month, Rubens said. And the average amount of time that VCR owners spend watching rented cassettes is just one to two hours a week.
Far and away the most common use of the VCR is to record television programs for later play, Rubens said. And that brought him to the statistic that eased the network executives' minds most: 72 percent of the recording is of network programming.
What network shows do people record? The popular conception -- that droves of people record the afternoon soaps while they're at work or late- night programs for breakfast play -- is a misconception, Rubens said.
Only four daytime shows -- DAYS OF OUR LIVES, ALL MY CHILDREN, AS THE WORLD TURNS and the GUIDING LIGHT -- were recorded by enough viewers to amount to two-tenths of a Nielsen ratings point. (Each Nielsen point represents 1 percent of the nation's TV-equipped homes.)
Late-night taping is statistically insignificant. Not even NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, a favorite among the young adults most likely to own VCRs, is recorded widely enough to register.
The hot tickets, Rubens revealed, are THE CBS SATURDAY NIGHT MOVIE, THE COSBY SHOW, THE ABC MONDAY NIGHT MOVIE, CHEERS, THE NBC SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE, DALLAS, FAMILY TIES, NIGHT COURT and HILL STREET BLUES.
CBS' Sunday movie is recorded by enough viewers to equal six- tenths of a ratings point, while the other shows on the list are taped by viewers equal to four-tenths of a Nielsen point. And Nielsen does count these people in its weekly prime-time tally.
If a viewer records The Cosby Show while he's out of the house on a Thursday night, Nielsen gives NBC credit just as if that viewer had been there watching. If that viewer records CBS' 8 o'clock Thursday show while watching Cosby, Nielsen credits both CBS and NBC.
"The VCR," said Rubens, "has turned out to be an adjunct to the network TV ratings, not a problem."