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Pandemic Audience Spike Pays Off for Steady Syndies

If you thought live, linear TV was dead, the pandemic is here to prove you wrong.

“I see live television not only doing significantly more ratings points but actually increasing in viewership,” Dawn Abel, executive VP of research at CBS Television Distribution, said.

According to research by CBS Television Distribution based on Nielsen data, the linear TV audience (including broadcast and cable) in the top 10 markets from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the first four weeks of stay-at-home orders (March 16 to April 19) rose 26% to 60.59 million people from a previous four-week average of nearly 48 million.

Comparatively, the streaming audience was much smaller, although it grew by a larger percentage. During those four weeks of quarantine, streaming viewing increased 51% to 13.21 million people compared to 8.76 million people in the prior four weeks.

Those numbers play out across the demographics, including younger viewers, albeit linear viewing is unsurprisingly less among those age groups. Linear viewing among adults 18-34 grew 28% to just over 8 million viewers from 6.27 million in the prior four-week period.

In one of syndication’s key demographics, adults 25-54, people watching linear TV grew 30% to 15.47 million from 11.86 million. Older Americans over the age of 65, of course, watch the most linear TV and that group’s viewership grew to nearly 41 million during the first four weeks of quarantine, up from 34.44 million.

On the streaming side, those results are inverted. Adults 18-34 consume the most media via internet-connected devices — including smartphones, tablets and smart TVs — and their viewership jumped 46% from nearly 3 million to nearly 4.5 million during quarantine. Adults 25-54 weren’t far off of that, with their streaming jumping 45% to 4.63 million viewers from 3.18 million in the prior period. And as expected, adults over 65 made up the smallest group of streamers, with their numbers increasing 25% to just over 2 million from 1.66 million.

And daytime viewership by kids 6-11 and teens 12-17, all of whom are now at home instead of in school, has shot up as much as 300% during the pandemic, according to Nielsen.

Disney’s Live with Kelly and Ryan has improved more than any other talk show amidst the quarantine ratings spike.

Disney’s Live with Kelly and Ryan has improved more than any other talk show amidst the quarantine ratings spike. (Image credit: Disney/ABC)

Those increased levels of people using television (PUTs) across all platforms and devices have resulted in better ratings for many syndicated shows, and particularly those — like Disney’s Live with Kelly and Ryan — that have managed to stay largely in originals throughout this time. Live, which has ranked as the No. 1 talker since quarantine began, has improved the most of any talk show, jumping 20% in households to a 2.4 five-week average, and 42% among adults 25-54 to a 0.9.

“We definitely saw initial uptakes in PUT levels with gains of 20% to 30%,” Warner Bros. executive VP media research and insights Liz Huszarik said. “Daytime overall had the greatest gains of any daypart. By weeks four, five, six and seven, things started to soften a point or two a week.”

According to Nielsen, PUT levels peaked in the week ended March 23 with 18.6% of the total available audience tuning in to linear TV, up almost 5% from 13.6% in the prior year. While that number has dropped over the following weeks, by the week of April 27 PUT levels were at 15.9%, compared to 13.4% in the prior year.

Similarly, total levels of TV viewing, which includes streaming, increased significantly in the pandemic’s early week, with the total TV audience hitting 24.6% in the week ended March 23, a nearly 8% gain over last year. By the week ended April 27, that had fallen to 21.2%, up about 5% over last year’s 16.1%.

Game Shows Are Winners

One genre that has particularly benefited from increased overall viewing is game, with Debmar-Mercury’s Family Feud and CBS Television Distribution’s Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune all up by double-digit percentages at the top of the syndication ratings chart.

During the first five weeks of the pandemic, Jeopardy! improved by 25% to a 1.9 compared to the prior four weeks among adults 25-54. Similarly, Family Feud improved 16% to a 2.4 and Wheel of Fortune 17% to a 1.8 in that demo. In households, those three shows led all of syndication with Jeopardy! jumping 13% to a five-week average 7.2, Feud adding 15% to a 7.0 and Wheel gaining 7% to a 6.6.

CTD’s stalwart Judge Judy added 2% in households to a 6.4 and 9% to a 2.0 among adults 25-54, even though the show has largely been in repeats throughout the quarantine.

That said, repeats may not matter so much during the pandemic because people who typically don’t watch are tuning in so they don’t know repeat from original: “We’ve seen this also during the holidays, you’ll still get an increase because people are home and they haven’t seen those episodes. Right now, repeat viewing patterns are not typical,” Huszarik said.

Still, the overall PUT gains haven’t necessarily resulted in increased ratings for all shows.

“Not everything is up in terms of the national ratings because of the news preemptions that happen in the local markets,” Huszarik said.

The most recent week of national ratings in the week ended April 26 saw some shows drop to season lows as pre-emptions took over. And some, like CTD’s Dr. Phil and other early fringe shows, have been strongly affected by constant pre-emptions throughout the pandemic, with press conferences largely scheduled for afternoon time slots like 3 and 4 p.m., leading into local news.

Pandemic or no, levels of TV viewing tend to drop when the days get longer and warmer.

“I don’t think it will be a faucet that turns on and off — I think the increased viewing will continue for a while,” Huszarik said. “As we get back to normal, over time you will probably see decreases, but not all at once.”