U.S. TV’s Live Sports Suspensions Lead to Record Falls in Core Demographics, Ads and Ratings

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The takeaways

  • U.S. television networks lost over 7 million viewers per night, with the 4 biggest networks losing a combined 41% in the key 18-49 adult demographic.
  • Although May’s ad revenues declined 31% from a lack of live sports content, June slowed to 20%.
  • Major League Baseball returns this week, potentially heralding a boost for traditional TV and streaming, according to one report.

What happened?

U.S. television networks lost over 7 million nightly viewers in almost 2 months. According to Nielsen, this marks a 9% loss compared to the same period last year. The four largest broadcasters – ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox – declined 21% (2.9m) from 13.5m in 2019 to 10.6m viewers per night. Additionally, the 18-49 adult demographic – much relied on by advertisers – dropped to slightly over 2m, down from 3.4m last year. With that loss equating to 41%, the return of Major League Baseball this week is both timely and welcome for advertisers and broadcasters alike.

As a result of a 54% fall in the demographic and declining programming, ABC has lost more than $250 million in ad sales revenue. Nielsen puts ABC’s current 18-49 audience average at 590,000 per night (a 0.5 rating), down from 1.27 million (1.0) a year ago. Fox, which screens MLB games, fell 37%, while NBC dropped 39%. CBS, which relies less on sporting events, has seen a 9% drop in its 25-54 core audience.

Why this matters

May saw ad revenues fall 31% and the Standard Media Index report a 23% fall in TV advertising to $716.4m. At the time, sports TV generated $52.8m – 8% of all national TV ad revenues compared to 17% in May 2019. Overall, national TV spend from March 1 through May 31 declined to $9.6 billion from $12.8b. U.S. media investments fell 29% in the same period. James Fennessy, SMI’s Global CEO, noted that June’s revenues recovered by 11%.

Analysts Needham & Company have released a report positing that returning live sports to network TV will boost streaming subscriptions. The report names Disney (with ESPN, ESPN+ and ABC), Fox and ViacomCBS as the biggest potential beneficiaries.

Further information is expected this Thursday when AT&T reports its Q2 earnings.

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