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September 15, 2020

Reflections on an Unchanging Nielsen TV Universe

On August 28th, Nielsen released its National Television Household Universe Estimates for the 2020-21 season, and reported that there are now 121 million TV homes in the U.S. In addition, they added that “the percentage of total U.S. homes with televisions receiving traditional TV signals via over-the-air antenna, cable, DBS, Telco or via a broadband internet connection connected to a TV set is currently at 96.2%. That’s an increase of 0.1 percentage points from the 96.1% estimated last year for 2020.” Essentially, despite the shakeup from the pandemic, the number of people who can receive TV through any means has stayed the same.

This isn’t a win for TV; indeed, such a slight increase is merely a function of population growth, not more people suddenly deciding to start watching TV. Even looking at a slightly longer time frame (2015 vs. 2020), we see that the increase in TV households is roughly proportional to the increase in the total number of U.S. households. However, TV is not making inroads among non-TV users; in the same 5-year period, the percentage of TV households as a proportion of total U.S. households only increased by 1%.

TV penetration has held steady since Nielsen began to include streaming/Internet TV access in 2014. While that’s good news of sorts, it means that TV content providers aren’t converting any of the millions of non-TV U.S. households, they’re simply battling for a piece of the same viewership pie from year to year, resulting in ongoing audience fragmentation. It’s been years since “TV” was a mass reach medium, and clearly there’s no going back.

Winners and Losers in Online Video Consumption, Covid Edition

A recently released analysis from Universal McCann’s Primis division explores video consumption and engagement rates in early- to mid-2020. In this article, we will focus on consumption rates, since it was unclear what the engagement rates were based on.

The Primis analysis, which covered the period from February 23rd-July 12th, showed that overall consumption rates (based on the number of impressions) peaked around March 22nd. Then fatigue set in, and consumption declined, first precipitously, then more slowly through April and May. By July, levels had settled at slightly above the February 23rd benchmark, as shown in this table from the report:


Source: Primis.

An optical scan of tables on individual product/service categories showed significant variations from the overall norms. Consumption of gaming, home and children’s content has consistently remained above February 23rd levels, while sports, which had tumbled due to lack of events, is now on the rebound. And to no one’s surprise, travel content consumption has been down and shows no sign of rebounding. Interestingly, a few key categories—news, DIY and food—have shown fatigue-related fluctuations. News consumption peaked in early-May and then declined to below February levels as people tired of the endless cycle of bad news. There was, however, a modest rebound in early-July. DIY peaked at nearly 150% of the 2/23 benchmark in early-May, but then plummeted sharply as homebound consumers started to emerge from quarantine. After going into negative territory in the early summer, consumption rates for this category have rebounded, likely as a result of people preparing for home schooling and creating home offices, in light of a potential second wave this fall and winter. Finally, U.S. consumers are tired of food. Viewers may have comforted themselves with video content about food in April and May, but after the “Covid 15” took its toll, this category also plunged into consumption rates lower than prior to stay-at-home orders.

Clearly, advertisers must keep abreast of changing viewer interests as post-normal routines assert themselves. If anything, this report shows that even popular or essential content has its limits, so carefully monitoring shifts in consumer sentiment is a useful tool in placing ads in progams where they will be seen.


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