News Aside, There Are Few Cable TV Winners Amid Pandemic

Covid-19 Cord Cutting
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

It’s been widely reported that cable news audiences have gone through the roof amid the coronavirus outbreak. But here’s what’s gone less noticed: There’s evidence of a decline in non-news viewing, according to new data from Samba TV, and that decline exists even when sports networks are excluded.

Samba TV is one of the leading in-set content analytics firms, with chips in 30 million smart TV sets in the U.S. The data Samba analyzed for VIP, which came from its U.S. viewership panel, comprising a sample of 1.8 million homes, compared the total number of households watching 120 cable TV networks across the last two weeks of January versus the final two of March, when vast swaths of the country were subject to stay-at-home orders. The data measured viewing at any point of the day.

Perhaps the most jarring data point from the analysis is the finding that there were 1.3 million fewer households watching cable at the end of March versus the end of January. This could suggest a degree of cord-cutting occurring over the time period, which could have been accelerated by unemployment caused by COVID-19. U.S. Department of Labor data shows a massive spike in new unemployment claims over the final two weeks of March, so this could herald deeper cuts coming in Q2.

With 1.3 million less households engaging with cable TV, the story continues to get worse when looking at the number of homes watching non-news content. This declined by 2 million over the two months, and is in part due to the sudden Rapture-like disappearance of sports from TV schedules. Samba found that the sum of audience losses across the top nine sports nets came to over 20 million, with each of these networks losing over 25% of their audiences since January.

But sports aren’t solely responsible for the non-news decline. The total number of non-news and non-sports channel viewing households fell by 600k over the two months. This means general entertainment, lifestyle or reality networks also saw a fall in viewers, which to some extent is continuing a decline in cable TV viewing seen before the coronavirus hit. This suggests that even with large numbers of people stuck at home, they are finding viewing alternatives despite access to these channels. With it likely that more pandemic-related cord-cutting is on the way, the decline in households watching regular scripted and unscripted networks should be expected to grow.

Dr. Jeffrey Silverman, Director of Data Science and Analytics for Samba TV, commented on the findings, saying, “The rising tide in time spent watching television is not lifting all boats equally.  While macro cable viewership numbers appeared at first to be up, we are seeing that cable news is the overwhelming driver of the perceived growth. When you remove news programming the number of households watching traditional cable programming is actually down 2.4. After the first full month of much of America sheltering in place, the real story is that despite the record number of viewers watching television, the number of households watching cable is basically flat, which clearly forecasts future risks to cable’s hold on audiences that are actively discovering, and shifting to, new streaming platforms.”

It hasn’t been bad news for all networks. Some have seen significant increases in audience since the pandemic began ramping up. AMC Network saw the largest increase in terms of US HHs gained for a non-news network, increasing by 4.1m versus the end of January. Samba’s data revealed that this was due to a large increase in movie viewing on the network, which is also behind the increase seen for FXX.

Other categories seeing notable increases in household audience are music channels MTV Classic and MTV Live, and the Game Show Network, which specializes in light-hearted fare and is providing a respite for 28% more homes than in January. 

Among premium cable networks, which Samba analyzed separately, Showtime was the winner in new reach, being watched in 2.2 million more homes at the end of March than in January. This perhaps highlights the success of their free trials offered across MVPD providers, and could net corporate parent ViacomCBS some new subscribers once the trials are over.

The importance of sports to the schedules of not just specialty sports nets like ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN, but also general entertainment networks who shell out for one or two marquee sports. The sudden suspension of the NBA hit TNT heavily, with their end of March audience declining by 17%, or 3.1m households, versus January. TNT was second in the proportion of household decline to murder documentary network ID, which shed 20% of its viewing households when compared with the same period in January. Murder apparently is less palatable during a pandemic.

The massive increases in viewership for cable news networks are unsustainable; once the crisis peaks in America, they will decline. What the data suggests is that the value dynamic for pay TV subscribers continues to ebb away, with audience declines in a period when the audience is literally locked down at home. With the likely acceleration of cord-cutting over the coming months, a further reduction in the number of homes viewing cable content is to be expected.