TV’s Initial Winners & Losers in COVID-19 Crisis

TV's COVID-19 Initial Winners and Losers
Cheyne Gateley/Variety Intelligence Platform

With the Coronavirus pandemic leading to most of America shut down in April, TV viewership increased with a captive audience. The overall problem for cable was that, once news was factored out, primetime viewership was down versus pre-pandemic levels. 

Using data provided by Samba TV, a leading worldwide TV analytics firm with a 3 million TV household panel in the U.S., VIP has taken the analysis a step further by looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the major media conglomerates. Data was compared between the first two weeks of March, the last period before Coronavirus began to impact the country, and the first two weeks of April, in order to see which companies benefited and which were impacted by the virus, based on the metric of live hours of content viewed.

In addition, VIP categorized the network portfolios of the congloms into 13 categories based on the main type of content airing on the channel: broadcast, general entertainment, hispanic broadcast, hispanic cable, hispanic sport, kids, movies, music, news, premium, reality, regional sports, and sports. This enables the analysis to show which aspects of the portfolio are booming, and which have seen a negative impact.


ViacomCBS saw the greatest positive increase in the number of primetime hours spent watching networks across its collection. This was driven by a 7.8 million hour increase watching the premium Showtime networks; aided, no doubt, by MVPDs offering a 30 day free trial of the network to subscribers. A concern will be the decline seen in kids networks versus pre-pandemic times, suggesting that kids and teens began to seek out alternative entertainment sources.

Crown Media’s uplifting and wholesome Hallmark networks saw the second highest increase in viewership, up by 1.4 million. Movies saw almost a million more hours spent viewing, as audiences turned to positive distractions from the world outside.

Discovery’s wide portfolio saw 1.3 million more hours spent watching their reality networks, with a lot of this going to Food Network and HGTV. Other minority interest holdings, such as Great American Country and Discovery Family, also saw increases in primetime viewing. General Entertainment, which in this analysis refers to OWN, saw a decline of 0.8m hours.

A&E’s general entertainment networks (History, Lifetime and Viceland) saw a large increase in primetime viewing, with a 14.7% increase (2.9 million hours). Even with the reality-focused networks A&E and fyi down by 2.1 million hours (-14.3%), the overall picture was an increase of 1.1 million additional hours watched in the first two weeks of April across their networks.

AMC’s movie channels (IFC and Sundance) had a million additional hours of primetime viewing, as TV viewers plump for the familiar to entertain them. The general entertainment nets, AMC and BBC America, saw a decline of 100,000 hours, but statistically this is essentially flat and doesn’t highlight a particular issue.


Although buoyed by CNN’s stellar performance, overall AT&T is down by 2 million hours of primetime viewing. Sports (represented by AT&T’s stake in NBA TV) is down by almost two thirds, and the lack of NBA likely represents a significant proportion of the general entertainment networks being down by 3.1 million hours.

Much like AT&T, the performance of Fox’s news channels eases pain that would be all the more substantial without it. Fox’s shrunken portfolio post-Disney sees it exposed to the ravages of the COVID-19 world, with the reliance on live events a short-term hindrance rather than the strength it typically is for guaranteeing an audience.

Comcast’s reality networks (Bravo, E!, Oxygen) are a lone bright spot in their primetime viewing, with a gain of 1.3 million hours viewed versus pre-pandemic. NBC wasn’t as badly hit as Fox or Disney, with a loss of 200k hours akin to being flat versus the total time spent viewing. It is interesting to note that viewing of their news networks (CNBC and MSNBC) is down in primetime, unlike other major cable news outlets. Comcast’s sports portfolio – Golf, NBCSN, and Olympic Channel – have seen a major decline, down by 63.7% or -3.9 million hours, with the losses across the other networks coming to -2.2 million.

First, the good news. Disney’s general entertainment (Freeform, FX, FXX, National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild) and movie (FXM) channels saw increased viewership during when compared to pre-pandemic levels. The bad news is that these gains were nowhere near enough to help pull Disney out of the hole that the evaporation of live sports left it. The company is down a total of -26.9 million hours of primetime viewing, with a large proportion of this down to sports that would air across ESPN networks and ABC.

The restoration of sports will help reverse some of the trends seen in this analysis. With it uncertain when the full sporting calendar will return, and fewer new shows available to air leading to networks already looking to raid sister SVOD services for content, lower than normal primetime consumption looks set to be a trend that will stretch through the summer.