How Big Is the Stay-At-Home TV Spike? Significant, for Now

Audiences are returning to Friday and Saturday nights amid a crisis, while network staples lift across the board and broadcast news hits decade highs.
Adrian Burrows/NBC
NBC's 'Chicago Fire' (above) and 'Chicago Med' reached their biggest audiences in more than a year on March 18, with 9 million and 9.2 million viewers, respectively.

With the coronavirus pandemic keeping millions of people at home, TV use has spiked, with figures from Nielsen showing rises across all demographics. Kids and teenagers, home from school, are posting the largest percentage gains. Nightly usage levels, which typically tail off on Fridays and Saturdays, have been steadier on those days in recent weeks.

Traditional TV viewing, as measured by Nielsen's households and persons using its television metric, was up 4 percent across all dayparts the week of March 9, with bigger increases during daytime hours given the larger share of the population staying home. The biggest gains came from young viewers who were at home rather than school: Kids ages 2 to 11 increased their TV use by 14 percent, and 12- to 17-year-olds watched 18 percent more.

Usage among adults, meanwhile, was up 5 percent overall. During the week of March 16, usage increased even more, says Peter Katsingris, senior vp audience insights at Nielsen: "We saw a 14 percent increase in Live TV usage from the prior week, a 35 percent increase in game console usage and a 28 percent increase in connected device usage among all U.S. consumers. This seems to indicate consumers are tuning to the TV, engaging with streaming platforms, ad-supported and not, and trying to pass the time inside as best they can."

In primetime, the gains have lifted all types of shows, from ABC's Modern Family to CBS' Survivor to AMC's The Walking Dead. Viewing levels night-to-night have also been more consistent in recent days than they usually are. NBC's Chicago Fire and Chicago Med reached their biggest audiences in more than a year on March 18, with 9 million and 9.2 million viewers, respectively. The March 19 episode of Station 19 on ABC had its biggest audience ever with 7.5 million same day viewers. 

News programming has skyrocketed: ABC's World News Tonight (12.55 million nightly viewers) and NBC's Nightly News (12.01 million) were the top two shows across all of television from March 16 to March 22, hitting viewer figures not seen since the early 2000s. CBS' Evening News also grew substantially, to 7.6 million viewers; the three network newscasts were collectively up 42 percent over the same week in 2019.

Cable news has seen similar growth. CNN's total-day audience the week of March 16 to March 22 was double that of the same week last year. Fox News increased by 77 percent, and MSNBC was up 38 percent year-over-year — and had its most watched week ever, averaging 1.64 million viewers.

Streaming data is notoriously hard to come by, but Nielsen's figures say use of internet-connected devices — the Rokus and Apple TVs of the world — jumped 10 percent in the week of March 9. Part of that is people watching linear TV through a connected device, but it's also likely reflective of a rise for Netflix, Hulu and other streaming platforms.

HBO reports that from March 14 to March 23, use of its HBO Now platform rose 40 percent over its previous four-week average. That jump is driven by the debut of Westworld, but the WarnerMedia outlet also notes that past shows like Euphoria (which doubled), Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials and Chernobyl rose by 50 percent or more.

Whether the trend sustains over time as networks and streamers run low on inventory remains to be seen. For now, though, the gains are pretty much across the board. "With the abundance of choices available to them, consumers are turning to what works," says Katsingris. "It seems they aren't engaging with one platform, but really with all the platforms."

This story appears in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.