It’s no secret that primetime TV viewing is shrinking and has been for a while. Year-over-year, audiences have shown declines, per Nielsen data. While a few networks have bucked this trend, the overall prognosis is grim. When comparing 2020 average audiences versus those from 2014, just 21 out of the 105 networks measured in both years saw an increase.
Among the networks seeing a decline over that time span, the average audience erosion was -393,452 viewers. The greatest decline was almost 10 times this size, with CBS seeing 3.8 million viewers vanish. Broadcast networks saw the greatest total decline. Given these networks have a greater exposure level than cable, it is stunning to see the viewer rejection of their content.
Among the eight major media network owners, the vast majority have seen overall viewing declines. Only Fox, buoyed by Fox News in an election year, saw an overall increase. Of the conglomerates seeing declines, Discovery is the least impacted, with AMC on a tier below. The remaining media companies see big losses, with Disney, ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal feeling the worst of it, and, pointedly, not all the blame can be laid at the door of their broadcast networks.
A&E Networks (co-owned by Disney and Heart Communications in a 50-50 split)
None of the tracked A&E Networks channels saw greater viewership in 2020 than in 2014. History sees the greatest decline, down by -44% (827,000 viewers), although it remains A&E’s most watched primetime network. Other A&E nets to see primetime declines north of 40% are LMN (-43%; 214k viewers) and Lifetime (-40.5%; 457k), with A&E Network down by 36%, or 463,000 primetime viewers.
While A&E lacks its own streaming service, it has been savvy in licensing out content to SVODs Discovery+ and Peacock, as well as creating linear streaming channels that are distributed across services including Pluto, Samsung TV+ and Roku Channel. This at least means they are able to reach some of the departed linear viewers, although it will not make up the viewing shortfall.
As former ratings juggernaut “The Walking Dead” grew tired and nothing else caught viewer attention to that degree, AMC Network has seen primetime viewership decline by more than half (-56.6%) versus 2014, or by 775,000 viewers. In terms of total viewers lost between 2014 and 2020, AMC is 15th on the list.
The other cable networks operated by AMC see either minor declines in viewing (BBC America, down by 30k, or -11.2%, WE tv, down by 10k versus 2014, or -2.1%) or report small gains. In fairness, these are what would be considered niche cable, but IFC’s 12,000 more viewers (+6.2%) and SundanceTV’s 76k increase (+55.9%) show it is possible to grow on cable by curating specific content and themes.
Discovery has six English-language networks that exited 2020 with greater average audiences watching in primetime than in 2014, bucking the general decline trend seen in TV. Leading the way in pure numbers was TLC, with 269k more primetime viewers (+24.5%). Other networks that saw growth over time were HGTV (+1k; 0.7% growth), DIY (+50k; 25.6%), Cooking Channel (+33k; 30.3%), Great American Country (+22k; 31%) and Motor Trend (+73k; 42%).
With such a wide swath of networks, invariably some will have suffered primetime viewing declines versus 2014’s levels, but, tellingly, none made the top 20 greatest declines list. Travel Channel saw the smallest % decline, down by -3.7% (-17k). Other nets seeing audiences shrink were Science (-17k; -5.5%), ID (-46k; -5.6%), Food Network (-142k; -13%), flagship network Discovery (-376k; 26.7%), Discovery Life (-28k; -33.7%), Animal Planet (-244k; -37%), OWN (-187k; -38%), American Heroes Channel (-131k; -57.5%), Destination America (-135k; -59.2%) and Discovery Family Channel (-94k; -61.8%).
This suggests there are some reality formats that are able to act as viewer lightning rods even in 2020, most notably the “90 Day” franchise on TLC, which bodes well for Discovery’s new Discovery+ service. Even so, the wide range of content types Discovery offers has mostly declined in audience as viewers embrace the streaming age.
Disney has been hit by declines across its portfolio. ABC is down 2.4 million viewers versus 2014, or -34.4%. Kids networks are down across the board, but Disney Channel has shed 1.6m viewers, which is an eye-watering -81.8%, over six years. The general entertainment cable nets purchased from Fox, led by FX, are down, with FX seeing primetime viewing levels fall by -60.5% (-877k). Even sports has seen audience erosion, with ESPN down by 705,000 primetime viewers, which translates to -32%.
The only Disney-owned network to see greater average primetime audiences in 2020 than in 2014 is Nat Geo Wild, which rose by 10.6%, or 26,000 viewers. While investors are exceptionally happy with Disney+’s progress, the stunning decline of nets like Disney Channel suggest there will be a time in the relatively near future where the affiliate revenues from these cable networks dry up. Whether Disney+ will be able to plug that gap remains to be seen.
Fox is the only media conglom to see total viewership across its portfolio greater in 2020 than in 2014. This is due to the increasing reliance upon the performance of Fox News. The record viewership in 2020 floated the boats belonging to the broadcast network and sports, with Fox News reporting 1.8m more viewers in 2020 than in 2014 (an increase of 105.5%).
Fox Business News also benefited but on a much more minor scale (up 59k, representing a boost of 134% against 2014’s levels). A worry at Fox will be how much steam is left in the Fox News gravy train. Already cyclical in viewing, 2021 comes with Republicans out of the White House and news networks like Newsmax and One America nipping at Fox’s heels to draw away some viewers.
With Fox News the only crown jewel at Fox, any decline in viewership will hit the company hard. Equally, if the news network were to hang onto its audience amidst a backdrop of an ever-increasing polarized nation, it is feasible to anticipate it overtaking Fox in average audience within a few years.
The suspension of the 2020 Olympics didn’t help NBC, though it helpfully laid out how stark the waning of NBC’s audience has become. The broadcast network posted the second greatest decline over the past 6 years, with primetime audiences tumbling by -2.7m (-35.2%).
Of particular concern will be USA’s erosion since 2014. The cable network has seen audiences dissolve, falling by 1.3m (a decline of -59%), placing it as the general entertainment network seeing the greatest decline over the period. Sister channel Syfy fares little better, with audiences down by -697k, representing -60.7% fewer primetime viewers.
MSNBC is NBCU’s only English-speaking success story (Hispanic cabler Universo saw modest gains of 13k, or +17.6%). Fueled by the 2020 election, the news network posted gains over 2014 of an astonishing 260.6%, or 1.5 million more viewers. With the political audience MSNBC caters to energized for 2021, seeing this growth sustain itself is likely.
Of the 19 ViacomCBS networks with viewership data going back to 2014, only two — Pop (+38k; +22.2%) and Smithsonian (+47k; +62.7%) — see increases in primetime viewing in 2020. CBS has the unfortunate distinction of seeing the greatest total audience decline over the last 6 years, losing 3.8m viewers, or down by 40.2%.
The CW, which ViacomCBS co-owns with WarnerMedia, has seen audiences decline by more than half (-51%; -844k). Other ViacomCBS networks seeing more than half of their viewers evaporate since 2014 are MTV2 (-131k; -70.4%), Nick at Nite (-902k; -67.1%), Nicktoons (-173k; -66.5%), VH1 (-370k; -52.3%), and Comedy Central (-362k; -51.5%).
Of concern will be the erosion of what have been part of ViacomCBS’ core media brands. BET has lost 317,000 primetime viewers over the last six years, representing a decline of -45.5%. MTV is down by 367k, a loss of -45.5%, and Paramount Network — the rebranded Spike — is down by 329,000 (or -41.6%). Nielsen didn’t share data on Nickelodeon until 2016, but over the last four years the kids-TV giant has shed 819,000 primetime viewers, a loss of -62.4%.
These losses across the board point to a world where 2021’s launch of Paramount+ is close to a final roll of the dice to recapture audiences. The backup for ViacomCBS is it does produce high-performing content for rival services, such as “Emily in Paris” and “13 Reasons Why” for Netflix, but the media conglom will need more than that for continued success in the next decade.
CNN represents the sole bright spot for WarnerMedia’s TV networks. The news network closed 2020 up by 1,265,000 viewers versus 2014, a gain of +241%. That’s not enough to offset the high losses seen for cable giants TNT (down by 1.1m viewers, or -51.8%), TBS (824,000 fewer primetime viewers, a decline of -44%) and Adult Swim (-827k; -61.5%).
With corporate owner AT&T putting all non-news eggs into the HBO Max basket, the pivot from cable TV is already underway. Should the rumors that CNN will launch a streaming service come true, expect that one positive to also begin to fall as WarnerMedia transitions for a digital future.