The following is excerpted from Variety Intelligence Platform‘s special report “Fading Ratings,” which will be available exclusively to subscribers on Jan. 4, 2022. The report will provide an extensive analysis of changes in TV viewership among total audience as well as the key 18-49 demo.
For now, read VIP+’s “Fading Ratings” series leading up to it: part one, on changes in broadcast TV viewership; part two, about how the most watched cable shows came to be dominated by news; part three, on the increase in peak TV to record highs; and part four, a look at how TV audiences can increase in 2022. Subscribe to VIP+.
The majority of TV networks in 2021 saw a decline in their average primetime audience for viewership taking place live or within 7 days of airing. In VIP+’s “Fading Ratings” report, VIP+ details the trends in viewership since 2014 for broadcast and cable TV. In this excerpted analysis, VIP+ will assess the state of the market for key genre-based networks: Kids, News, and Sport.
The major kids cable networks have seen total primetime audiences plunge in recent years. Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network benefit from data only being available from 2016, missing some key years of decline, but the trend of rapid viewer evaporation has hit all children and teen-focused content.
Note that total primetime audiences include the key kids demographic of 2-11, who will make up the bulk of the audience. The data for 2-11 isn’t available, but total viewership is an ample measure to quantify trends given it includes children. Given the substantial declines seen, there’s no likelihood that the data would look very different if the 2-11 cut was available.
Versus 2014 levels, Disney Channel’s primetime audience is down by 1.7 million to 233k (-88.1%), Disney Junior is down by 345k to 258k (-57.2%) and is now more watched than Disney Channel, and Nick Jr. sees audiences falling by 254k (-52.3%) to an average of 232k.
Comparing 2021 primetime audiences with 2016, which includes Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, sees substantial declines for the flagship children’s channels. Disney Channel leads the pack, with audiences down by -82.3% (1.08 million), followed by Nickelodeon (-74.5% or 978k) and Cartoon Network (-79.3% or 768k).
There are three main factors behind the drop-off in kids TV viewing and they all relate to streaming. The first is increased competition, which started with YouTube but has since expanded to almost all SVOD, FAST and AVOD services featuring kids content. With these either having shorter ad loads or the option for no ads at all, parents are happy for their children to be less exposed to commercials.
Streaming has also offered viewers a new viewing experience, untethered by the linear singularity of traditional TV. With big media leaning into kids TV libraries as key for their SVODs—Disney+, HBO Max and Paramount+—and the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple also having kids content as a commitment, we’re likely to keep seeing kids cable TV viewership decline annually.
This trend will be a worry for ViacomCBS and Disney. While sports networks get media attention for being cable’s most expensive networks, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon are two of cable’s most costly networks.
With Disney Channel having a higher monthly affiliate fee ($1.10) than CNN ($1.01) in 2020, yet audiences vanishing, the justification for charging high prices for content few are watching is gone. Pay TV providers looking to offer flexible, modern packages that address consumer interest should seriously consider pushing kids content onto an optional tier in order to bring costs down.
It’s a very different story for the major cable news networks. The 2020 viewership boom, fueled by the twin fires of global pandemic and a wild Presidential election, was never going to sustain itself going into 2021.
The good news is that the average primetime viewership for the cable news giants are massively up versus 2014. Fox News’ 2021 average of 2.4 million viewers is up by 644,000 (+36.8%), MSNBC’s 1.5 million is an increase of 159.6% on 2014’s average of 592,000, and CNN’s 2021 average of 1.1 million is an average increase of 589k (112%) from the 2014 baseline.
Even better, comparing 2021’s average audiences versus 2019 sees an increase for CNN, and modest declines for Fox News and MSNBC. CNN’s 2021 average audience is 15.4% greater (149k), with Fox News only -4.3% (-107k) and MSNBC down by -11.7% (-204k).
With 2022 bringing with it the first set of national elections since the 2020 Presidential race, expect year-over-year audience change to be positive again in the coming year. Cable news is set to remain one of cable TV’s few successful tentpoles for some time to come.
The success of ESPN relative to other sports networks is such that a vast gulf of over 1.3 million viewers exists between the sports network and its competitors, with the second most watched primetime sports network sister net ESPN2.
But even that isn’t enough to spare ESPN from audience decline. The sports channel has seen primetime audiences fall by 26.6%, or 587,000 viewers, from 2014’s high of 2.2 million.
No sports net can report a greater primetime audience in 2021 than in 2014. But there are shades of a positive story for 2021. Eleven sports networks saw audiences rebound from 2020, which was severely impacted first by the halt in live sports that the pandemic wrought, and then from the lack of live game crowds.
Before getting carried away by sports’ rebound, consider this. Only the NFL Network can report a greater average primetime audience in 2021 than in 2019 (up by 3.7% or 10,000 people), with ESPN2 level at 304k.
All other major sports nets are down in 2021 versus 2019: ESPN is down by -7.5% (-131k), Fox Sports 1 by -7.8% (-25k), NBCSN—in its final year before closure—down by -13% (-43k), Golf Channel’s audience is down by -6.6% (-8k), MLB Network seeing an audience decline of –18.5% (-25k) and NBA TV saw a slight drop of -2.3% (-2k).
The revival may not be as positive as the media has spun it, but it does still show that sports remain important to viewers as we head in 2022.