As the coronavirus forces more and more people in the United States to stay home in self-isolation, it’s hardly a surprise that broadcast viewership has been up almost across the board.

The sheer boost in viewership is a blessing for the networks. After all, the recent broadcast ratings decline in the face of streaming is much publicized, and typically at this time of year, post-daylight savings, numbers take a tumble. But whether the current spike will last beyond the weeks, perhaps months, that the pandemic continues to sweep the nation is a big question, as is whether the networks will have any new content to keep viewers glued to their screens when this is all over.

“What we’re seeing in the elevated usage of television is a variety of motivations driving people to watch,” says Will Somers, executive vice president and head of research at Fox.

Over the past week, the ratings headlines for each network have looked rosier than they have for some time.

Between March 15 and 21, more than 15 shows scored season-high live-plus-same-day viewership tallies, and plenty more hit multi-week highs. Among the highlights for each network were “The Voice” belting its way to a season-best 10 million viewers (1 million more than the previous peak) on NBC, “The Neighborhood” leaping to 7.4 million viewers (500,000 more than its prior best this season) on CBS, “The Masked Singer” scoring 8 million viewers (its highest tally this season excluding the post-Super Bowl premiere) for Fox, and “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Station 19” easily scoring season highs with 7.1 million and 7.5 million viewers, respectively, on ABC.

Taking a wider view of the growth, from the week of March 7 (before much of the country was in lockdown) through the week of March 14, primetime levels of PUT (People Using Television) and HUT (Households Using Television) were up roughly 10% among adults ages 18-49 and 35-49, and 7% among those over 50, according to Nielsen.

Worth noting amid the ratings fanfare of the past week are the two demographics that saw by far the largest jump: kids (ages 2-11) and teens (ages 12-17). The former grew by 19%, while the latter saw a 21% jump week-to-week.

This suggests a significant bump in co-viewing, or at least some kind of return to the days of entire families gathering on the sofa to watch TV. While kids and parents around the nation are navigating the tortuous waters of home schooling, it’s apparent that the self-isolation predicament has made sitting down for an evening in front of the television — perhaps out of force rather than choice — more commonplace.

Among the splashy headlines, one clear trend is that alternative and more family-oriented comedies have been among the biggest gainers on broadcast.

In the non-scripted space, “The Voice,” “Ellen’s Game of Games” and “The Masked Singer” climbed significantly (up 14%, 29% and 11% respectively), while on the scripted front, some of the series that hit season bests were “The Conners,” “Bless This Mess,” “The Goldbergs” “Superstore” and “Will & Grace,” to name just a few.

On the face of it, now would seem like a good time to launch a series, according to Jim Gaither of ad agency The Richards Group. Gaither points to the younger audience as well as the overall increase in volume as presenting a “bit of an opportunity” for the networks to try something new.

“You have so many more eyeballs out there, and you have a chance to hook someone into a new program that the network normally wouldn’t have the
opportunity to reach. If they’re not going to introduce the show now, they definitely need to be promoting it as much as possible,” Gaither says.

However, sources at all four major networks stress that in terms of programming, they are in highly uncertain territory. 

With virtually every production around the globe shut down for an unknown length of time and the traditional pilot season all but decimated, there is a possibility that the networks will run out of original content to put on the airwaves.

So while the temptation may be to throw new shows into the ring and perhaps change things up when it comes to the traditionally rerun-heavy summer schedule, everyone is in a “play-it-by-ear situation,” according to multiple sources.

“Although we’re assessing our options, it’s too soon to evaluate what makes the most sense in the long term,” says one network exec.

But couple the rise in broadcast viewership with that of local news (Fox stations were up 33% among adults 18-49, while ABC, CBS and NBC stations saw bumps of between 16% and 22% from Monday to Wednesday of last week), and it’s plain that in these deeply trying times, people are turning more to broadcast for an escape than they have over the past few years.

“It’s broadcast serving an important function in terms of keeping viewers informed and entertained,” says Somers.