TV Ratings Slump Shows Long Haul Symptoms Amid COVID Recovery

Anthony Crupi
·8 min read

Moments after Mark Cuban received the text that turned the sports world on its collective ear, the Dallas Mavericks owner’s CPU kicked into high gear, and within moments, he’d made the journey from denial to acceptance.

Sitting courtside during the third quarter of the Nuggets-Mavs game on March 11, 2020, Cuban eyeballed his phone and made the face of a man who’d just discovered a possum in his sock drawer. For many sports fans, the look of disbelief on the tech billionaire’s face would become their default setting in the weeks to come.

At the break, ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi caught up with a visibly stunned Cuban, who zipped through the Kübler-Ross playbook at warp speed. “This is crazy, this can’t be true,” Cuban said, in the wake of getting word that the NBA had pulled the plug on the season following Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test. “I mean, it’s not within the realm of possibilities; it’s just, it seems more out of a movie than reality.”

After taking a deep breath, Cuban regained his composure, and the adrenaline surge he’d been riding gave way to a sort of guarded optimism. “This is the last game for who knows how long,” Cuban said. “But … when we talk about getting the season back on track, that will mean all this got worked out, right?”

One full trip around the sun later, and things are still pretty far from being worked out on the pandemic front. (A year after NBA commissioner Adam Silver put the season on hold, more than 530,000 COVID-related deaths have been tallied in the U.S., up from the 29 people who had succumbed to the disease at the time Cuban was reacting to his phone.) That said, Cuban’s hypothetical has held up fairly well as far as the NBA and the other major sports leagues are concerned. The return to play has been a net positive, even if certain metrics might suggest that not as many people are as interested in sports as they were in the Before Times.

While it’s understandable why some may have arrived at that conclusion, in light of a year marked by record sports ratings declines, that doesn’t make the inference any more accurate. If there is one axiom for the sports-media world to bear in mind when looking back on the last 12 months, it’s that ratings erosion is largely a function of America’s rapidly evolving video diet. Traditional TV usage is at an all-time low this season, and even the most popular sports haven’t been able to shake off what amounts to a systemic collapse in the default distribution model.

According to Nielsen data, approximately 78.4 million viewers have tuned into broadcast and cable primetime programming since the TV season began on Sept. 21. That marks a 10% decline compared to the year-ago 87.1 million viewers, and a 16% drop compared to the analogous period during the 2018-19 campaign. Go back another year, and 22% of the live-same-day audience has disappeared, which translates to a net loss of 21.3 million TV viewers per night.

The erosion is even more pronounced when you isolate the Big Four broadcasters. Per Nielsen, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox are averaging 16.8 million live viewers per night, which shakes out to an 18% drop compared to the year-ago deliveries (20.4 million). When compared to the same interval in 2018-19, broadcasters have lost nearly one-quarter of their impressions (-23%); pull back one more year, and the nets are looking at a 28% drop-off.

The same dynamic holds true on NFL Sundays. Over the course of the regular season, broadcasters averaged 28.4 million viewers when the NFL was in session, which marked a loss of 13% from 32.5 million viewers in 2019. But for all the uproar over the drop in the league’s TV ratings, pro football held up relatively well considering that 4.1 million fewer viewers were parked in front of the TV on Sundays this season. Across its local and national Sunday TV windows, the NFL’s overall deliveries were down just 7% compared to the previous season—something to think about the next time some analyst starts Chicken Little-ing about the staying power of the National Football League.

That TV lost as many viewers as it did throughout the first year of the pandemic is a bit of a head-scratcher; after all, most ratings watchers assumed that a nation of housebound citizens would while away the hours in front of the tube—or at least those hours not spent on Zoom calls or hoarding the Charmin. This did not happen. Aside from a five-week stretch that coincided with the opening innings of lockdown (March 16-April 19), when overall TV usage inched up 5% versus the comparable stretch in 2019, there has been no lift in time spent with the medium during the pandemic. (That the number of adults 18-49 actually fell 5% while total viewership was up is evidence that the temporary gains in TV usage were primarily a function of older viewers, who already over-index on TV, watching even more of it during the first weeks of the shutdown.)

Much of the available data points to a significant uptick in streaming activity during the first few months of the pandemic, as people who had already grown accustomed to seeking out their entertainment options away from the traditional trappings of TV leaned hard into their Netflix subscriptions. But the biggest losses in linear TV usage also coincided with the ongoing absence of sports. By the time we hit the first full month without the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, the year-to-year losses were staggering, as broadcasters saw 28% of their audience fade away. And members of the dollar demo were nowhere to be found, as usage among adults 18-49 plummeted 50% in that same period.

Meanwhile, the return of sports effectively halted the slide—or at least temporarily. On July 25, when Fox aired the first primetime MLB broadcast of 2020 (Yankees-Nationals), network TV usage grew 45% compared to the year-ago Saturday. And if the midsummer clutter lessened the impact of the individual sports, getting basketball, hockey and baseball back on the air did seem to stanch the bleeding. The rate of attrition improved noticeably from that 28% year-over-year loss to a more manageable 18% fall-off, which is where broadcast usage stands today.

In terms of the segment of the audience most coveted by advertisers, the 18-49 demo didn’t really start to rebound until the NFL kicked off its season in September. While broadcast usage among the under-50 crowd was still down 40% year-over-year in the midst of the first rounds of the NBA and NHL playoffs and baseball’s truncated regular-season campaign, the demo began tightening up upon the return of TV’s biggest draw. Midway through the season, broadcast deliveries of adults 18-49 were down 14% versus the less-harried period in the fourth quarter of 2019, a decline more in keeping with the losses of previous years.

As much as everyone in sports media is hoping to come away from this strange and terrible year with a new outlook on the business—if nothing else, many of the innovations made on the production side should persist in some form when things eventually go back to “normal,” while at the same time, nobody will miss Zoom’s unsparing hostage-video aesthetic—it’s important to remember that much of what happened in the course of the last 365 or so days won’t have a lasting impact on the direction in which the money flows. Ratings will improve once the leagues are back on their regular schedules and a full complement of fans are allowed back inside the venues.

This is an asterisk year, a stretch of disrupted time that will give rise to plenty of do-overs. Despite all the deprivations and disappointments, there has been no impact on the value of the big-money media deals. Witness how things have shaken out in terms of the NHL’s new deal with ESPN and the NFL’s any-day-now renewals with its broadcast partners. Nor will the anomalous viewership losses inform how TV ads are priced once we’re on the other side of this thing.

At the same time, it’s imperative that Nielsen makes good on its promise of a universal currency, one that captures every impression no matter the delivery mechanism. TV usage is in secular decline, and the acceleration in cord-cutting and the hardwired preferences of Gen Z guarantee that sports ratings can only bounce back so far before they begin to peter out again. The growing pains that are sure to accompany the gradual shift to a direct-to-consumer universe will be considerable, but if we can survive a global pandemic, we can handle a measly paradigm shift.

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