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Time-Shift Heroes: Orphan Black and Other TV Shows That Thrive Belatedly

Despite all the massive buzz around it, Orphan Black is actually very much of a niche hit, with an average episode of the BBC American clone-conspiracy thriller drawing in just over 1 million viewers each week. But it turns out the show is No. 1 in a metric that is becoming increasingly important to networks: delayed viewing. According to an analysis of 2014 Nielsen data obtained by Vulture, Orphan currently gets a bigger bump, percentage-wise, from DVR replays than any other series on TV — a 123 percent lift, if you’re counting. Translated, this means more people (679,000) catch up on the Tatiana Maslany showcase later in the week than actually watch it when it airs on Saturday nights (550,000 viewers). TV series adding audience via replays isn’t exactly news these days; networks are forever spinning their DVR bumps. But what is noteworthy is that an increasing number of high-profile shows, including some on big networks such as FX and TNT, are joining Orphan in now drawing bigger crowds via time-shifting than through day-of viewership.

As the era of watching shows when networks want us to watch gives way to the age of on-demand viewing, Vulture dug deep into the latest DVR data for another one of our periodic looks at how TV viewership is changing. Here are six things we discovered about TV time-shifting over the past year:

• FX, hardly a niche player, has become something of a poster child for the new realities of after-the-fact viewing. While it still has older, established hits that draw big numbers the day they air (Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story), its newer shows now routinely attract the bulk of their audience after premiere night, particularly among younger viewers. Season two of The Americans, for example, averaged 1.34 million viewers in the overnight numbers widely reported the day after the show aired. But once seven days’ worth of DVR replays were tallied — the so-called “L+7” numbers — another 1.43 million viewers were added to the show’s overall tally. That gain of 104 percent from the same-day total is the biggest lift for any drama on TV this year, save for Orphan Black. And if you measure only the viewers in FX’s target demo of adults under 50, The Americans goes up even more (124 percent) when post-premiere tune-in is counted. The same goes for FX newbies Fargo and The Bridge (which has its second-season debut tonight); both shows jump 105 percent in L+7 data among viewers under 50. Even established FX players are seeing their audience shift to delayed viewing: Archer, which went up a mere 27 percent in L+7 when it debuted four years ago, saw its adults under 50 audience jump 101 percent in L+7 during its most recent season last winter.

• Broadcast shows are still drawing their biggest audiences the day they air: Among the Big Four networks, not a single show currently gets more viewers after premiere night. But that could change, perhaps as soon as next season. Among viewers under 50, ABC’s Nashville and CBS’s Elementary both saw viewership of their 2014 episodes go up about 80 percent. Even NBC’s megahit The Blacklist, which does very well in same-day ratings, leapt 73 percent off its same-day tally this year. It’s inevitable that a network show will soon do the bulk of its business in the days after it airs.

• As FX’s experience with L+7 lifts demonstrates, huge time-shifting gains aren’t limited to smaller networks such as BBC America or, say, IFC (whose Portlandia goes up a massive 135 percent in L+7 among viewers under 50, the biggest demo lift of any show on TV). But even within networks, some shows are being more heavily impacted by the trend. At AMC, Mad Men’s most recent season saw more viewers under 50 watching on a delayed basis (923,000) than on Sundays (896,000). But for fans of The Walking Dead, the show is still appointment television: Of the show’s 2014 audience of 18.5 million viewers, nearly three out of four watched each episode the day it aired, with time-shifting boosting its average “only” 35 percent.

• There’s no one reason why some shows are now seeing the bulk of their viewership time-shifted while others still put butts in La-Z-Boys the night they air. It’s tempting to say that a show like Dead simply has a more passionate audience than, say, Mad Men, but the endless online debate about the meaning of minutiae like characters’ T-shirts on the latter show probably disproves that idea. Likewise, it’s not just a matter of niche shows overperforming via DVR: TNT’s Perception, which is as mainstream a drama as one can imagine, is one of TV’s biggest time-shift winners, with its total young-adult audience split nearly evenly between same-day and post-premiere viewers. Time slots probably do play a role, however; the fact that Orphan Black airs on Saturdays, generally one of the least-watched nights of TV, is certainly part of the reason its viewer base is okay waiting at least a day to watch. And some shows simply don’t have the fierce urgency of you-better-watch-this-now, either because they’re not spoiler-filled (think Portlandia) or because they air on a night when so many other bigger shows air (CBS’s Elementary faced off against ABC’s Scandal, which is almost a live sporting event for its viewers).

• When talking about L+7 lifts, network spinmeisters (and stories such as this one) are almost always talking about how much shows improve from their so-called “live plus same-day” ratings. What’s not often discussed is the fact that those same-day ratings actually involve a significant amount of time-shifting, too, since the overnight numbers released the day after a show airs include both folks who watch live and anyone who DVRs a show but watches it before he goes to bed (specifically, 3 a.m.). And with many shows, the latter camp is much bigger than those who watch without use of a DVR. Take The League, which last fall moved from FX to the brand new FXX. Only 232,000 fans managed to find FXX on their cable systems and watched it live on Wednesday nights. But before the day was over, its viewership, on average, would double — jumping 107 percent to 480,000 viewers. A week later, the show’s audience — the L+7 number — was over 1 million. In other words, just 22 percent of the recorded audience for The League watched the show live, as it aired.

• Networks rightly tout the huge DVR gains their shows now experience, since they represent a far more accurate picture of who’s actually watching TV these days. While the next-day Nielsen numbers Vulture and other showbiz sites post are often a good indication of a show’s relative position within the TV universe — Orphan Black has a relatively small audience no matter what metric one uses — they can actually be misleading when judging how an older show is doing versus previous seasons, or how new shows are doing versus the shows they replaced. But there’s also a flip side: The shift from same-day viewing (especially live, same-day viewing) to DVR replays means more and more people are not seeing commercials. Yes, some people still watch ads even in shows they record; Nielsen actually measures ad viewership separately and provides that data to networks (but not to the press). Overall, these skyrocketing DVR numbers are not necessarily good news for commercially supported networks, no matter how positively they’re spun. They are, however, the new reality for TV networks both big and small.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson