Top-tier sports programming can’t come back soon enough for the U.S. television networks, which in the absence of the tube’s highest-rated programming are facing a record ratings shortfall.
While viewers are always a lot tougher to reach during the summer months, this year’s sultry season numbers are particularly grim. According to Nielsen data, the primetime audience in the last 54 days has dropped 9% compared to the year-ago period, a difference of more than 7 million viewers per night. Deliveries at the Big Four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) are down 21% to 10.6 million viewers per night, a decline from the 13.5 million who watched during the same period in 2019.
If the shrinking pool of total TV viewers weren’t enough cause for concern, the advertiser-coveted demo has shown even less of an inclination to stick around for this sports-free summer. The Big Four networks, since May 25, have seen a staggering 41% of the lucrative demographic disappear, as the average nightly draw of adults 18-49 has dropped to a hair over 2 million, down from 3.4 million a year ago. That marks the erasure of an entire ratings point (1.6 vs. 2.6).
Taking the biggest hit among the broadcasters is ABC which, having been denied its annual presentation of the NBA Finals, is down 54% in the demo since the summer TV campaign began. Per Nielsen, ABC is currently averaging on the order of 590,000 adults 18-49 per night, or a little shy of a 0.5 rating, off from 1.27 million (1.0) a year ago.
Once it became clear that the NBA playoffs weren’t going to occupy their usual springtime slot, it was inevitable that ABC would suffer from Finals withdrawal. Last year’s Warriors-Raptors series averaged 14.9 million viewers, a 5.2 in the demo and an 8.8 household rating, making it the network’s third-biggest draw outside of the Academy Awards and the AFC Wild Card Game. By comparison, ABC’s six nights of replacement programming eked out an average audience of just 3.55 million total viewers, a 0.7 in the demo and a 2.3 household rating.
Along with those vanished gross ratings points, ABC had to contend with the loss of more than $250 million in ad sales revenue, assuming another six-game Finals slate.
None of which is to suggest that ABC is alone in its suffering. Having been shortchanged 10 national MLB broadcasts and the 2020 All-Star Game, Fox’s summer deliveries have fallen 37%, while the loss of the Kentucky Derby and the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final have taken a 39% bite out of NBC’s 18-49 audience. (And the comparisons will only get worse from here; after all, NBC this Friday was meant to air the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics. That’s 17 nights of NFL-caliber ratings down the tube.)
Thanks to its somewhat older target demo, CBS hasn’t been nearly as devastated by the summer sports drought as have its broadcast rivals. The Tiffany Network, which guarantees deliveries of adults 25-54, has seen its core demo slip just 9%, a show of relative stability that also has much to do with the fact that CBS’s summer sports schedule is rather light. While it undoubtedly felt the sting of missing out on March Madness and the 2020 Masters Tournament, both events are normally held during the standard 35-week broadcast season, or well before the summer schedule kicks off.
As one might expect, the sports-reliant cable channels have taken their lumps alongside the rabbit-ears gang. In May alone, TNT saw its average primetime audience wither 72% to just 702,000 viewers per night, down from 2.51 million, while ESPN’s deliveries slumped 64% to 670,000 viewers, down from 1.88 million in the year-ago period.
While ad sales estimates for the last 50-plus days are as yet unavailable, the extent of the damage will begin to make itself known this Thursday, when Turner Sports’ parent company, AT&T, kicks off TV’s second-quarter earnings period. But if the spring data is any indication, the networks are going to need all the baseball, basketball and hockey inventory they can muster. According to Standard Media Index, national TV spend from March 1 through May 31 came in at around $9.6 billion, down from $12.8 billion.
All told, stateside media investments were down 29% in that three-month period.
“This global pandemic is having an impact on advertising markets, which is far more severe than what we ever reported during the 2008–09 global financial crisis, when the size of the year-on-year declines being reported each month never reached more than 16%,” SMI Global CEO James Fennessy said.
While the very nature of the coronavirus makes it all but impossible to forecast how the midsummer sports revival will pan out, Fennessy said he’s seeing some signs of improvement in the domestic ad sales market, as U.S. media spend in June was off 20%. If that’s not exactly the stuff of ticker tape parades, on a percentile basis it does mark a significant sequential lift compared to May’s 31% drop-off.
Baseball’s truncated regular season begins Thursday on ESPN, as the Yankees take on the Nationals, followed by yet another chapter in the age-old Giants-Dodgers rivalry. The NBA season resumes on July 30, with TNT’s Jazz-Pelicans/Clippers-Lakers doubleheader, while the NHL playoffs hit the ice on August 1.