Fading Ratings: A Special Report on TV’s Shrinking Audiences

Fading Ratings
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

The TV business has seen rapid change over the course of the last five years.

Subscriptions to premium streaming video services have skyrocketed, while pay-TV subscriptions have fallen by 10.2 million from Q4 2016 (a decline of -12% across MVPD and VMVPD providers). Competition for time is getting stronger among not just streaming services but video games and social media.

This is having an impact on viewing behavior. On an overall level, broadcast and cable viewership is down versus five years ago, but this tells only part of the story.

It must be noted that even with today’s very different viewing landscape, the four major broadcast networks averaged around 20 million viewers in total across 8 p.m.-10 p.m. primetime live or same-day viewing in the fall.

While this has fallen by roughly 10 million viewers since 2015, it is still a very large number of total viewers, offering marketers a wide reach. However, also of note is that the proportion of the audience aged 18-49 is declining faster than the overall rate of decline, with primetime viewing of most content increasingly skewing over 50.

There are still formats that resonate with TV viewers and attract live audiences on a regular basis. Expect news/opinion, reality and sports to be the capstones of the future of pay TV. Live sports has also grown in importance, both resistant to the general audience dips seen and as a result of live viewing of some genres fading, increasing in frequency of the most watched content.

Scripted content — comedy and drama — has seen immediate viewership drop rapidly from what was du jour five or six years ago. Some of this falls upon the network heads for signing so many streaming distribution deals and giving viewers multiple ways, often including next-day access, to watch content.

As Paramount+’s “Yellowstone” can attest, if a drama is only available on TV (and pay-TV on-demand and the TVE-authenticated Paramount Network app), with a long window until the season is available on a streaming service, audiences will still turn up for it.

The concept of “peak TV” also plays a role in changing viewer behavior. The number of available series on broadcast, cable and streaming has increased every year since 2008 save for 2020’s pandemic-impacted production slowdown, with 2021 setting a new record of 1,923 series. Streaming now accounts for over half (51.5%) of all original series in the U.S., a monumental jump from the 12.9% share in 2016. The obvious takeaway is one of runaway competition for viewers, which has depressed live viewing on many networks.

Still, it’s possible to grow an audience in this new viewing world. Twelve out of 124 measured networks saw a greater average audience in 2021 than in 2016, though this is rare: 90.3% of broadcast and cable networks measured in both periods saw audiences decline.

VIP+’s “Fading Ratings” special report details the changes in TV viewing and what it means for the industry. With 80 charts and tables, it is an extensive analysis of the state of present-day viewing trends and essential reading for anyone connected with the TV and streaming industries.

Read on to learn about:


Key trends in viewership for broadcast and cable


A detailed breakdown of the modern state of television


The role peak TV plays in changing consumption patterns