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Post Pandemic, Linear TV’s Slow Decline Will Continue

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by James OU, VP, analytics and data strategy

Although linear TV enjoyed an initial pandemic boost, the effects weren’t long-lasting and didn’t reverse longstanding trends with which the industry must reckon.


The pandemic lockdown resulted in a dramatic and immediate increase in TV viewership. As viewership increased and marketers recognized the linear relationship of being forced to stay home and watch more TV, inventory became tighter. But what can we learn from this past year about linear TV viewership, and what can we expect going forward?

First, linear TV’s decline continues unabated and is unlikely to stop anytime soon. When we compare the first 26 weeks of the year for the past three years, there is a precipitous decline in viewership. According to Nielsen data, the beginning of the year represented a high point (and progressively lower year-over-year) with the exception of the 2020 lockdown, and viewership gradually declined as the year progressed. Next year will likely continue this decline.

Second, the viewership bump from the pandemic lockdown was not as long-lasting as the lockdown itself. Around week 10 (early to mid-March) 2020, the U.S. enacted rolling lockdown measures. This led to a dramatic increase in viewership, surpassing 2019’s levels, but this lasted only six weeks before dropping below 2019 levels again.

Linear TV viewership in the first half of 2020 quickly returned to the level of decline seen in 2019, which further accelerated in 2021. Despite the pandemic lockdown not easing well into 2021, only four weeks of viewership during the height of the 2020 pandemic lockdown surpassed week-one levels (pre-pandemic). Barely a month later, Nielsen found viewership dropped past week-one levels, and by mid-summer, the rate of decline returned to historical trend about three months after the start of the lockdown.

Third, 2021’s rate of decline is even worse than 2019’s decline, but it is levelling for a variety of reasons.

We saw a sudden decline in late winter/early spring 2021 as the country reopened, vaccination efforts spread and hotspots cooled. 2021’s rate of decline in TV viewership actually exceeds the past two years, trending below the same period from both pre-and pandemic years.

Recent weeks have seen a slowed decline for several reasons:

  • The pandemic is not over yet. Hotspots and outbreaks are still happening, and not everyone is comfortable with a return to pre-pandemic behaviors.
  • Remote working, flexible hours and people taking a break from full employment have all created more opportunities for linear TV viewing.
  • Consistently, summer months have seen a flatter decline in the past years, as 2021 progresses, and this is likely to continue.

The pandemic may not be over, but linear TV’s slow decline will continue past it.

Google’s mobility data, which tracks locations of phones in types of locations, offers some answers as to the causes of linear TV’s rise and fall. Mid-March 2020 was an inflection point as people began staying home more than normal, which saw at some points almost 80% less visitation. More people were heading out of their homes as the residential index becomes less pronounced, but even 14 months later, we are still seeing a significantly higher likelihood of people staying home vs. going to work; we are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. However, linear TV viewership is behaving like it is 2019. What does that tell us? Consumers of video are moving elsewhere. The opportunity (or demand) to view is there, but linear TV not being chosen at the same rate.

Linear TV benefitted from the pandemic lockdown, but the effects weren’t long-lasting and did not reverse any longstanding trends.

The industry needs to understand the changing video consumption landscape. At the same time, 200 million households viewing TV means that this medium still represents a significant reach opportunity. This new normal is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and how the industry reacts will have repercussions to the survival of the medium.

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