The world of TV has seen immense disruptions this year. Some of the affects of the pandemic were obvious and not unexpected. Overall, people consumed more TV as they shuttered at home. Viewing habits changed with new schedules. And as schedules changed streaming became more popular than ever as viewers watched what they wanted when they wanted. Many of 2020’s changes in TV viewership look to be with us for some time.

Early Shut Down

No surprise to anyone that TV viewing in March and April increased. American adults spent an average of 11 hours and 25 minutes a day with media. Of that time 5 hours and 57 minutes is spent on video content across TV’s, TV-connected devices, computer, smartphone and tablets. The amount of time spent on live TV increased in Q2 as people searched for information on the pandemic and political races. Overall, people watched more TV in Q2 2020 than in Q2 2019. What makes this statistic more meaningful is there were no live sports in 2020. Sporting events often garner long viewing times.

New Habits

As people’s lives changed so did their viewing habits. This was most evident with early morning news. With so many people working from home and starting their days later the 5a-7a news viewership dropped. Ratings for news later in the day increased. Because remote working is becoming more commonplace, time-shifted viewing does not appear to be temporary.

One cannot talk about changes in TV viewership without discussing cord-cutting. People were already leaving cable prior to the pandemic but that only accelerated the process. Streaming services saw a huge spike in subs this year. With new work schedules the desire to watch programming when it is most convenient will not fade. Streaming video will continue to grow.

Cable News Growth

While most people want 2020 to end as quickly as possible cable news networks are not among them. This was a banner year for cable news with some notable records set. Over the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day) Fox News Network was the number 1 network in the country. No doubt the lack of original programming on broadcast and cable networks helped their cause but the achievement is notable. Fox News was also the first cable network to average over 3 million viewers in Primetime for a year. In November CNN was the number one network in the country for viewers 25-54. November was also the best month ever for MSNBC. With an off-cycle election year coming cable news ratings will be closely watched.

Sports on TV

It is important to understand how the year affected sports viewing and what it means for the future. Live sports viewing keeps fans in front of their TV’s for long stretches. It also is a key revenue driver for networks and local stations alike. The 2020 sports calendar was the most chaotic in memory. Leagues resuming play in bubbles. Playoffs for the NBA, WNBA and NHL starting in late summer and finishing in the Fall. Ratings tanked for all, leading to the least watched World Series. Even the almighty NFL is down 7% this year. Cord-cutting has not helped as most streaming platforms charge extra for sports. And the rabid sports viewer is ageing while Gen Z shows little interest in following sports like their parents.


While overall ad revenue for television was down due to the pandemic it was mitigated due to political advertising. Still TV revenue per station hit a nine year low. No great increase in television ad spend is expected over the next 5 years. There may be a spike in advertising for the Olympics and the 2024 political season but little else is on the horizon.  Nationally, cable revenue has held steady even as there is a constant decline in subscriptions across the country. Local media will continue to perform better than national media, especially in cable and broadcast.

Changes In TV Viewership

As we have noted in previous blogs the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already in place. With more flexible work schedules, our viewing habits have become increasingly non-linear (Linear TV is traditional television watching of a program at the time and on the station that it airs). Nielsen reports streaming is up 74.4% year-to-year. As streaming increases cable subscriptions decline, which also impacts local broadcast. Younger viewers in particular watch programming on demand. And content providers are obliging. More Hollywood studios are releasing their films on subscription TV at the same time they debut in theaters. While people will start to venture out more as the vaccine becomes prevalent people enjoy being entertained at home on their own schedule. And that is the crux of changes in TV viewership. The audience wants to control what they watch and when.