All broadcast TV needed to slow its ratings decline was a coronavirus pandemic

Broadcast TV is singing a different tune.
Broadcast TV is singing a different tune.
Image: ABC
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Coronavirus is putting a temporary halt to the decades-long decline in broadcast television viewership.

TV ratings for the four major US broadcast networks—ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS—have increased each week since March 1. Evening news shows are bringing in their largest audiences in decades, the New York Times reported. An average of 32 million Americans watched the evening news last week, up 42% from the same period last year.

The pandemic has been especially good to reality TV, medical dramas, and shows about first responders. ABC’s American Idol has grown its total audience three weeks in a row. The March 18 episode of Game of Games, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, had its most viewers in more than a year, jumping 36% from the prior week. The March 11 finale of The Bachelor was the dating show’s most-watched installment since 2016.

Meanwhile, the March 23 episode of The Good Doctor—one of the many shows that donated its prop medical supplies to US hospitals—hit a season high 6.8 million live US viewers, its most in over a year. Station 19 hit an all-time high of 7.5 million viewers last week. An episode of Grey’s Anatomy was seen by 7.1 million Americans—the long-running drama’s best total in a year.

And it’s not just the typically older demographics that are contributing to these gains. (Roughly 60% of broadcast TV’s audience are viewers 55 and older.) On Monday, broadcast viewership in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic was up 5% from the same day last year. Viewership of ABC alone was up 31% from the same day in 2019.

As Rick Porter, the Hollywood Reporter’s ratings specialist, noted, this kind of across-the-board increase in viewership is unusual. Widespread ratings surges are exceedingly rare in the age of cord-cutting to begin with, but especially now, at the time of the year when days get longer and warmer and we spend more time outdoors.

But that’s not happening as millions of Americans stay home to minimize the spread of Covid-19.

Viewership across cable TV and streaming is also up in recent weeks. HBO’s audience grew 20% last week compared to the prior four weeks, the network announced yesterday. Binge viewing, which HBO classifies as watching at least three episodes of a show in a day, was up 65% from the same period. WarnerMedia said its cable networks, TNT and TBS, saw increased viewership this month.

Netflix does not share viewing data, but its content head, Ted Sarandos, did allow viewing on the streaming service is “up.”

Though Americans are clearly watching more TV than they were a few weeks ago, that viewership isn’t much higher than it is underscores just how fractured the media landscape has become—and how far broadcast TV has fallen.

Most of these gains are modest, counted in hundreds of thousands, rather than millions. For instance, the 36% jump for last week’s Game of Games—one of the biggest such ratings jumps in recent weeks—only represented an increase of 1.27 million actual viewers.

There was a time not long ago when a US-wide quarantine may have meant individual shows would have seen weekly viewership increases in the tens of millions. In the mid-1990s, ER routinely reached more than 30 million American homes. The least-watched season of Friends, which aired from 1994 until 2004, still averaged 20 million viewers per episode. Today, a broadcast show that averages 10 million viewers is a smash hit. Anything above 5 million is considered solid.

That’s mostly because of cord-cutting and the rapid expansion of other entertainment offerings, like streaming. AT&T alone lost 4 million pay-TV customers in 2019. That year, there were 86.5 million American households with a traditional TV subscription, down from 100.5 million just six years prior.

No show demonstrates the precipitous decline of broadcast TV viewership than Survivor. The finale of its first season, in 2000, was watched by more than 51 million Americans. Its most recent season finale, which aired last year, drew only 6.5 million viewers:

Unless TV viewing habits are permanently, and drastically, changed by the coronavirus pandemic, this uptick in viewership won’t last. But it could remind Americans how indispensable old-fashioned TV really is in their lives. If that’s the case, the long demise of broadcast TV might take a little bit longer.