TV Long View: The Paradox of Delayed Viewing During Coronavirus Quarantines

Grey's Anatomy - Chicago Fire - The Masked Singer - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2020

Linear TV ratings have risen nearly across the board during the past few weeks, as millions of people are home during coronavirus quarantine mandates. More than a dozen network series have recorded season highs in the past month, and streaming platforms are seeing spikes in use, as well.

Yet there's one aspect of TV viewing that has barely budged in that time: Delayed viewing, as measured by Nielsen, is almost exactly the same as it was prior to the pandemic.

The Hollywood Reporter compared three- and seven-day ratings for some 70 shows that have aired on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC both before and after stay-at-home orders became widespread in mid-March. (There are three weeks' worth of delayed-viewing data available since those mandates took effect.) Both overall and for a number of top-performing shows, delayed-viewing numbers on the broadcast networks are almost identical to what they were before then.

In a number of cases, shows are ending up with seven-day totals higher than what they were, but most of those gains are on the front end. Same-day viewing is up by about 600,000 viewers and a few hundredths of a point in adults 18-49, but the gains in at three and seven days are nearly identical to before March 15.

Total Viewers (millions) Live + SD Live +3 Lift vs. SD Live +7 Lift vs. SD
Sept. 23-March 15 4.77 6.47 1.7 (36%) 6.96 2.19 (46%)
March 16-April 5 5.37 7.08 1.71 (32%) 7.47 2.1 (39%)

Adults 18-49 Live + SD Live +3 Lift vs. SD Live +7 Lift vs. SD
Sept. 23-March 15 0.81 1.17 0.36 (44%) 1.29 0.48 (59%)
March 16-April 5 0.87 1.24 0.36 (42%) 1.33 0.46 (53%)

Since the starting point is higher, percentage gains are actually down a little in recent weeks.

A similar story is playing out among the five primetime newsmagazines, which have seen increased viewing in recent weeks. A much greater share of news viewing happens on the first night, quarantine or not, but as is the case with entertainment programming, the delayed-viewing bump is pretty consistent.

Primetime Newsmagazine Viewers (millions) Live + SD Live +3 Lift vs. SD Live +7 Lift vs. SD
Sept. 23-March 15 4.56 5.17 0.61 (13%) 5.3 0.74 (16%)
March 16-April 5 5.2 5.87 0.67 (13%) 6.0 0.8 (15%)

The data on delayed viewing tracks pretty well with Nielsen statistics on total TV usage. In the three weeks from March 16 to April 5, total TV usage spiked. Time-shifted viewing, however, remained a fairly small piece of the pie, accounting for less than 10 percent of the total.

The post-quarantine weeks are obviously a much smaller sample size than the previous six months, but the consistency of the delayed-viewing numbers up and down the rankings suggests that it's not a small-sample anomaly.

Near the top of the charts, ABC's Grey's Anatomy gained an average of 3.15 million viewers and a 1.1-point gain in adults 18-49 over seven days for the 17 episodes that aired before March 15. The three that have aired since are a little bit lower, rising by 3.09 million viewers and 1.03 in the 18-49 demo.

NBC's Chicago Fire — which grew by 3.54 million viewers and 0.7 in adults 18-49 before March 15, 3.42 million and 0.75 after — and Fox's The Masked Singer (2.93 million, 1.0 before, 2.74 million and 0.9 after) have similar profiles. All three shows had higher seven-day viewer averages for the post-coronavirus episodes, but the gains came almost entirely in same-day viewing. Chicago Fire did get a slightly larger bump among adults 18-49 for two episodes in late March.

A little further down the rankings, CBS' unscripted mainstay Survivor has somewhat better seven-day totals (10.11 million viewers, 2.1 in adults 18-49) after the pandemic-related spike in viewing than before (8.93 million, 1.9), but its gains from delayed viewing are smaller (2.01 million viewers vs. 2.25 million, 0.5 vs. 0.6 in adults 18-49).

Second-year ABC comedy Bless This Mess tracks a similar path lower on the chart: Its 18-49 gain of 0.3 points is the same before and after stay-at-home orders, and while its seven-day viewership in late March and early April is about 400,000 viewers higher than the prior season average, it's adding fewer people (1.07 million vs. 1.13 million) after the initial airing.

The delayed-viewing figures represent a small paradox in the recent jump in overall use. Old-fashioned, live TV viewing is up by a sizable percentage, and streaming has also increased by a significant amount. The viewing tool that blossomed in between those two things, however, has hardly moved at all.