The Quarantine TV Ratings Spike Is Over

While streaming use is outpacing year-ago levels, a linear viewership rise in March and April has faded.
Rise: Sonja Flemming/CBS. Voice: Tyler Golden/NBC. Station: ABC/Mitch Haaseth
Shows that saw their ratings soar in March and April, like (from left) CBS’ 'All Rise,' NBC’s 'The Voice' and ABC’s 'Station 19,' fell in May.

In the week of June 1, a little less than 20 percent of the population was watching TV at any given time during the day, Nielsen finds. That's the lowest mark in three months. 

Overall TV use has been trending down across the board since late March. There are bright spots — streaming usage is way above its year-ago levels — but the spike in viewing levels amid the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has almost entirely gone away.

Nielsen's Total Use of Television metric measures cross-platform viewing across all hours of the day. In the week of March 2 — the last full week before widespread virus lockdowns began — that figure stood at 19.2, meaning an average of 19.2 percent of people in the U.S. were watching something at a given point during the week. Three weeks later, amid stay-at-home orders across the country, total TV use had spiked to 24.6 — a 28 percent jump.

A host of shows, including NBC's Chicago dramas and The Voice, ABC's Station 19 and CBS' All Rise, drew their biggest audiences of the season in late March and early April. Streaming usage exploded, with users spending more than twice as much time on those platforms than during the previous year, for three straight weeks.

Volume peaked the week of April 6, when people spent nearly 170 billion minutes streaming content, per Nielsen. Since then, however, TV use has dropped slowly but steadily across the board, to a 19.6 in the week of June 1.

Shows that saw their ratings soar in March and April fell hard in May: The Voice, for instance, went from averaging 9.8 million same-day viewers from March 16 to April 13, to about 7.4 million for its final three episodes in May. After setting series highs in total viewers twice in four weeks, Station 19 closed its season with three below-average outings. A remotely shot episode of All Rise fell short of its typical numbers.

Streaming volume has declined at about the same rate as overall TV use. In the week of June 1, viewership was down about 26 percent from the early April peak, to 126.1 billion minutes. That figure is still about 50 percent ahead of last year, however, while linear ratings remain flat or down.

A combination of some states allowing businesses and restaurants to reopen and the onset of warmer weather — which tends to depress linear ratings under any circumstance — likely contributed to the decline, says analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed Partners. "The fundamental shift away from linear TV has clearly accelerated in streaming's favor," says Greenfield. "Catalogs are vast and linear TV is mostly in reruns now that the season is over, so it makes sense that streaming is even more compelling now."

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.