Pew: Retrans Boost More Than Covers Local TV COVID-19 Revenue Hit

Pile of money
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The rise in retransmission fees has more than compensated for the COVID-19 hit on TV station revenue, at least in the early months of the pandemic. That is according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. The report also found that ad revenue for network news--ABC, CBS, and NBC--were actually up in 2Q 2020, while cable news revenue held steady, though only thanks to Fox, whose large increases covered declines at CNN and MSNBC.

The broadcast TV study was based on second-quarter ad revenue (the quarter ending June 30, 2020) for Sinclair, Tegna, Nexstar*, Gray and Scripps, compared to second quarter 2019 revenue. The overall report was based on financial data from the Securities and Exchange Commission for publicly traded companies, and data from Kantar.

While the stories of individual stations undoubtedly vary, Pew found that while ad revenue was down for 2Q 2020 from 2019, the increase in retransmission consent fees "more than made up for it."

The study said that across those five TV station group operators, which together have over 600 TV stations, retrans fees were up "sharply" in 2Q 2020, by 37% or a total $87.3 million in median revenue, more than covering the median ad revenue decline of 24% to $67.9 million. Sinclair represented the biggest boost in fees, a whopping 175%, with Scripps second at 55% and Tegna getting the median position at 37%.

The ad total for the three network nightly newscasts was up 11% in 2Q 2020 over the comparable 2019 quarter, with ABC pulling most of the weight, up a whopping 21% to NBC's 7% and CBS's 3%.

For the cable news outlets studied, total ad revenue was up 2% for the quarter, year over year, to $422 million, but Fox News was doing the heavy lifting to lift the average. Driven by big ratings gains, Fox news had its biggest Q2 year-over-year revenue increase in more than a decade, up 41%, while CNN ad revenue fell 14% and MSNBC 27%, despite higher ratings for both in the quarter, with CNN more than doubling its prime time audience over 2019.

*Because Pew is comparing revenues to second quarter 2019, before Nexstar's September 2019 merger with Tribune, former Tribune station revenues have been backed out of the Nexstar 2020 numbers so it is an apples-to-apples comparison.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.