Sign up to access the Archives

Log in to access the Archives

Media Matters goes beyond simply reporting on current trends and hot topics to get to the heart of media, advertising and marketing issues with insightful analyses and critiques that help create a perspective on industry buzz throughout the year. It's a must-read supplement to our research annuals.

Sign up now to subscribe or access the Archives

April 1, 2024


We took a look at how many viewers various linear TV networks have lost since 2015, based on Nielsen data presented by Variety, and the results are quite interesting. For example, the average commercial minute "viewer" projection in primetime for the CBS broadcast TV network in 2015 was 9.4 million. But despite growth of about 8% in the total TV household population, it declined about 52% to 4.5 million by 2023.

The accompanying table presents similar statistics for the other broadcast TV networks as well as a variety of cable channels. As can be seen, the CW took the largest hit, declining by 74% in average minute "viewers"; however, all of the broadcast TV networks were down significantly as were most of the cable channels (see table).

On closer inspection, linear content suppliers that programmed mainly entertainment fare, like USA, Syfy or TBS, were most vulnerable to competition from streaming. However, the Spanish language channels and those that favored documentaries (i.e. Discovery and A&E) also lost a lot of ground. Channels like Comedy Central, which target younger viewers, also suffered large losses and though it is not shown in the table, this is also the case for channels specializing in children's fare.

There was one notable exception to the decline: cable news. While hind runner CNN showed a minor loss of about 12%, Fox News was up 6% and MSNBC, thanks in large part to its highly critical coverage of Trump's polarizing behavior, more than doubled its audience from a mediocre 576,000 to 1.2 million, an increase of 118%.

As a whole, these comparisons tell us several things. First, the linear TV networks made very few adjustments in their choice of program content once it became evident that they were losing younger and middle-aged viewers to streaming. Instead, they’ve continued to use the same program suppliers and presented essentially the same menu to viewers as before, resulting in the predictable loss of many viewers. At first, the losses were mainly in the frequency of viewing. People who watched a linear channel or a broadcast TV network say, four nights a week, began to reduce that number to three times weekly then twice and finally, some gave up almost entirely.

Could these losses have been avoided? Perhaps. The linear TV networks could have sought out new program suppliers and tested new formats, especially those featuring the same kinds of content that were being used by Netflix to woo linear TV viewers. But in most cases the linear TV program execs were wedded to profit sharing pacts with producer "partners" in the lucrative syndication aftermarket fostered overly long runs for shows that had outstayed their welcome to create more episodes that would boost syndication rerun incomes.

The networks who had "partnership" ties to producers of former hit shows like Seinfeld sought additional income by allowing these shows to be licensed to Netflix and other streamers. Unfortunately, this error also made the streamers' libraries more popular, drawing viewers to them and away from content offered by the linear TV programmers. By the time the networks finally wised up about this blunder and stopped being so generous to their competitors, it was too late.

The third error was the failure of many linear TV networks to effectively promote their content, especially to younger audiences who were the earliest defectors. There was the occasional exception, mostly by cable channels, but in the main the networks missed a golden opportunity to promote their shows during the early days of the streaming revolution.

Subscribers to MDI Direct subscription service receive weekly MDI Alert reports of new developments and new research, delivered by email. These are brief, single subject articles designed to keep you informed as events break or new information becomes available. Some of these reports are also available for individual purchase; a complete listing can be found here.



The die is already cast for national TV time selling "currencies" and the sellers are calling the shots. They’ve determined that, to avoid chaos, there will be a single "audience" measurement and that, subject to their sales promotional needs, various sellers can use any of the JIC's "certified” alternative research suppliers to provide added "currencies" as refinements to the standard "audience" tallies.

As to what the "standard audience" source will supply, the answer is simple. It will be a "big data" solution for device usage so every episode of every show can be reported in terms of tune-in or "impressions," down to those reaching only a few thousand households. It must include out-of-home, even though there is no way to determine if anyone is watching when an OOH commercial is detected. However, it must not include a measure of commercial attentiveness as that would produce much lower numbers. Finally, some indicator of who is watching the program content, though not commercials, is desirable.

What this describes is very close to what Nielsen has developed as its new, "big data" measurement service, now under close scrutiny by all of the major sellers. So, barring some really huge foul by Nielsen, the company will likely retain its near total dominance of national TV ratings and buyers will be using the same kinds of "commercial viewing" estimates as before, only the data will be more "granular" and stable when sliced and diced, especially when sellers with tiny audiences per episode are involved.

To be honest, the sellers do most of the audience research funding and they have a perfect right to protect what they regard as their interests regarding "audience" measurement. In effect, what they are really saying is, "We, the sellers, with the buyers more or less going along, will decide what currency will be the standard and what alternative currencies are acceptable."


Post a Comment