TV Network Reach Weakens, But Still Dominates

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There’s a good news/bad news/great news story for broadcast TV executives curious as to their stations’ overall ratings performance in November.


In the month, traditional TV reached 97% of all adults 18-34 for more than one minute.

While that statistic holds true, so does the fact that viewing of individual networks on traditional TV are losing reach.

Nevertheless, Wall Street wordsmith and respected financial analyst Brian Wieser has something wonderful to share: “The platform of TV as a whole is holding up better than many think.”

Wieser serves as Senior Research Analyst for Advertising at Pivotal Research Group, and he notes that as traditional TV networks are increasing their efforts to position themselves up against digital media in their capacity to utilize more data in audience targeting, digital platforms are increasingly highlighting their capacity to deliver audience reach that compares with TV against traditional age and gender-based demographic groups.

Yet, even as Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube having nearly the same level of reach as traditional TV among millennials and younger audiences, TV — while experiencing viewer decline — is a medium Wieser says “still retains its ubiquity.”

During November 2017, traditional national TV networks in the U.S. reached 98% of the population for at least one minute of time in that period.

The widest reaching network among all viewers, on a live+7-days basis, was CBS.

The network reached 72.2% of all people in the U.S. during the month — down from 76.9% in November 2016 and 74.6% in November 2015.

Each of ABC, NBC and FOX reached 68%-72% of the population during November, followed by The CW and ESPN, which were each around 40%.

Another group including AMC, Lifetime, Disney Channel, FX, TBS and TNT followed in the low-to mid-30s.

“Among networks owned by the largest media owners, reach against all people typically declined by 1.8% for the median network,” Wieser says.

Interestingly, cable news networks “saw significant declines in reach” in November 2017 vs. November 2016, even as recently released research suggests live programming — in particular, news — is driving viewer growth for TV.

Wieser notes that Fox News Channel fell from 30.8% to 22.7%, CNN dipped from 36.4% to 23.9%, and MSNBC slid from 26.0% to 18.6%.

In contrast, several cable networks posted significant improvements in reach, including NHL home NBC Sports Network (from 19.4% to 22.9%), expanded tier teen offering Disney XD (from 18.0% to 21.0%) and WE TV (from 14.9% to 17.2%).

At a household level, reach is significantly higher.

During November, 84.5% of homes watched CBS, followed by 84.2% of homes watching NBC, 82.1% watching Fox and 82.0% watching ABC. The CW followed with 60% household reach. Reach generally declined by around 4% for each of these networks, Wieser finds; median network declines were 2%. A small number of cable networks had 40%-55% household reach, including Lifetime, ESPN, TNT, TBS, AMC, FX and USA.

Much of the focus on changes in media consumption is concentrated on younger audiences.

“Although absolute levels are lower as they typically are, change does not appear to be meaningfully different versus the rest of the population when looking at reach metrics for 18-34s,” Wieser notes. “During November 2017, the widest reaching network among this group was CBS, which reached 55.8% of all people aged 18-34 in the U.S. This was down from 63.9% in November 2016, 61.2% in November 2015, and 65.9% in November 2014. Each of ABC, NBC and Fox reached 51-56% of the population during November; all of these networks lost reach in amounts that were similar to CBS’ declines.”

A handful of networks had 26-32% reach (The CW, AMC, FX, ESPN, TNT, TBS, Freeform). Among networks owned by the largest media owners, reach against 18-34s people also typically declined by -2% for the median network.

The modest levels of reach for individual networks, especially individual networks, are sometimes compared with YouTube.

Commenting on this, Wieser concludes, “While YouTube and other primarily digital media owners offer wide reach themselves and significant volumes of consumption, too, traditional TV still manages to reach greater numbers in greater volumes and with content that is generally viewed as brand-safe. Given TV’s reach and content advantages as well as still-greater absolute scale, we continue to see the use of TV as a primary medium for brands who use sight, sound and motion in their campaigns and seek content brand adjacencies.

“Digital media such as YouTube has the capacity to serve as a primary platform for large brands with younger skewing audiences, but we think it will generally continue to serve in a secondary role, helping larger marketers to optimize the reach and frequency of their campaigns. By contrast, we think smaller advertisers who use video in their campaigns but who find absolute costs associated with scaled TV campaigns to be too significant are likely to be core advertisers who are more likely to prioritize YouTube for significant portions of their media campaigns.”