The Unlikely TV Networks Defying Ratings Gravity

TV Ratings for 2020
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

As year-end TV ratings reports emerge, it’s not difficult to determine in most cases which networks are going to be up or down. Nonstop coverage of the election, pandemic and racial equality are lifting the 24-hour news channels, for example, while COVID-inspired pauses in sports and scripted-TV production have wreaked havoc for virtually everyone else on the air. To top that off, competition from the streaming business almost certainly means traditional TV is in a state of distress.

But look hard enough at the ratings data going back to 2014, and the narrative that all TV is dead falls apart quickly. There are still unheralded pockets of success here and there worth noting.

Diginets, the over-the-air channels that also are carried by cable, are one group to see growth amidst the pandemic. For those who are unaware, diginets are carried on the digital sub-networks contained within the main OTA signal for broadcast networks like ABC, NBC and Fox.

Some of these, led by Me TV, Start TV and Grit, have seen sustained year-over-year increases. Others saw audience declines in 2019 but bounced back in 2020. Of the 11 diginets tracked in Nielsen’s data for at least two years, 9 increased in 2020, one—Justice Central—was flat, and only two declined.

Analysts have said this is due to diginets relying on reruns and not having their pipeline interrupted with COVID-19 shutdowns, but in VIP’s view, if simply having reruns meant an increase in viewership, then all networks hit by the production pause would have been unscathed.

Instead, it is likely the type of reruns on diginets that aided their growth. 2020 was one of, if not the, most trying years in living memory, and the mental strain on the audience often leads to their consumption of nostalgia-heavy content in an effort to make them feel good.

Most diginets almost exclusively feature content from the ’70s and ’80s, which isn’t available on other platforms, and this would be behind the viewership increases. The continued rise of linear streaming platforms like Pluto TV and IMDb TV is being propelled by a similar vein of programming.

Discovery’s portfolio of networks in particular, led by a record year for TLC viewership, saw a number of positive stories emerge. TLC is the clear crown jewel, with this the fourth straight year of primetime audience increases. Overall, Discovery saw 10 networks with increased audiences in 2020, as viewers sought refuge from the outside world in the likes of HGTV, Food Network and Discovery Life.

But not all Discovery nets saw audiences grow. ID, home of true crime, saw audiences fall by 22.4% as viewers turned to happier formats. That will also account in part for the decline seen by Travel Channel, which has become the channel for ghost-hunting and other paranormal content, some of which veers more to horror than spooky fun. As the world emerges from the pandemic sometime in 2021, these trends could be reversed, but they likewise could continue if it takes longer than anticipated for life to return to normal.

Another area seeing growth in 2020 are feel-good, family-friendly networks. Channels like INSP, formerly The Inspiration Network (+8.9% total audience versus 2019 and the 6th straight year of growth); Up, the rebranded Gospel Music Channel (+29.3%, averting two years of declines); Game Show Network (+6.4%); and Crown Media’s Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (+10.4%) and Hallmark Drama (+42.5%) all saw viewers flock to them to provide an alternative to the miseries of real life.

These networks will hope they’ll be able to keep their new viewers once the pandemic is over. Feel-good content constitutes a niche major SVODs are yet to truly clamp down on, so it’s probable that the likes of Up and INSP will keep some of their gains.

The same goes for Hispanic networks, which saw gains in 2020 avert declines in prior years. Univision’s networks saw growth, as did NBCU’s Universo cable net, but this growth wasn’t universal, as Telemundo posted a slightly lower number in 2020. The growth for Univision could be in part down to viewers trusting the news content during the events of the year, which may lead to declines as news normalizes in 2021.

While this analysis has highlighted the hidden gems seeing growth, the fact is that two-thirds of networks (93 out of 141) saw viewership decline at a time when theaters were closed and viewers were trapped inside for long periods of the year. This doesn’t bode well for TV in general, suggesting many types of networks are being superseded by streaming alternatives.

Kids networks have seen some of the greatest overall declines since this data began to be published in 2014. While this is due to the better viewing experience streaming services offer versus linear, the level of the declines for the major kids channels are eye-watering. Disney Channel has shed 1.6m viewers since 2014. Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon only have data from 2016, but have lost 695k and 819k viewers, respectively.

It’s too soon to proclaim that linear TV is dead, especially as reality channels, like TLC and HGTV, and family-friendly channels have seen audience growth over the last few years. Equally, while it is concerning that broadcast networks are seeing rapid declines, they remain the most watched primetime linear channels in America.

The viewership trends suggest not all content types remain a good fit for linear TV. Network owners shouldn’t be expected to acquiesce on this point and will attempt to wring every drop from the affiliate-fee stone. But there will come a time soon where poor-performing networks, whether independent like Fuse or part of larger media companies like Universal Kids or TeenNick, go the way of El Rey Network and cease operating. Expect the linear TV bundle to begin shrinking in 2021, as a belated reckoning gets underway.