Something for Everyone: Specialty Cable Networks Thrive During Quarantine

Channels ranging from TLC to Nickelodeon have seen their audiences grow with millions more potential viewers at home.
Courtesy TLC
TLC's '90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days'

Over the first three episodes of its current season, TLC's 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days was averaging 2.76 million viewers on Sunday nights.

In the four subsequent episodes —  the first of which coincides with the early widespread stay-home mandates during the novel coronavirus pandemic — the show has averaged 3.37 million viewers, a growth of 22 percent. The April 12 edition clocked in at 3.5 million viewers, out-drawing everything on cable that day.

TV usage has surged during the coronavirus quarantines, with millions more potential viewers at home than would be under normal circumstances. While numbers have leveled off some after an initial surge, total TV usage is still up by more than 25 percent compared to the first week of March, before stay-home orders went into effect in much of the U.S.

The larger viewer pool has led to increased ratings across the TV landscape, from network evening news to Netflix. Specialized cable networks have seen their audiences surge as well, with a number of them experiencing double-digit growth in recent weeks.  

90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days has grown its audience every week it's been on this season and is on pace to be the most-watched season of any show in the franchise, thanks in no small part to the jump in viewers the past four weeks. It's indicative of the viewer rise across niche networks, from its Discovery stablemates Food Network and HGTV to kid-focused channels like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. Below is a snapshot of how several networks are performing in recent weeks.

Comfort Food

From March 16-April 7, ratings for Food Network were up 19 percent vs. the same time a year ago in the network's key demo of adults 25-54, and up 27 percent vs. the previous weeks.

Daytime and weekend viewership has grown at an even higher rate, with weekdays rising by 38 percent over their 2019 levels and a huge 63 percent over the pre-quarantine weeks. On weekends, viewing is up by more than 40 percent vs. both last year and pre-virus levels.

The cabler has also changed up its daytime programming some, offering marathons of some of its popular franchises in addition to the instructional shows that usually make up the bulk of the daytime slate.

Corporate sibling HGTV, meanwhile, has seen its weekday afternoon viewing grow by 27 percent over the prior six weeks, while weekends are up 15 percent.

Gaming the Old-School Way

Game console use is up considerably since early March — and so is viewing of game shows via Game Show Network. GSN, which airs a mix of original and classic shows, has seen its total-day audience grow by 87,000 viewers — a jump of 30 percent — since March 16, compared to its first-quarter average. Primetime is up by 127,000 viewers, a 34 percent gain. GSN is in about 64 million homes.

More News

Network evening news and cable news channels have soared in recent weeks, with the former accounting for some of the most-watched telecasts across all of Nielsen-rated TV in the past month.

The gains have extended to BBC World News, which is in about 40 million homes in the U.S. It's not rated by Nielsen, but independent analytics company 605 estimates that the channel's total-day household ratings rose by 36 percent in March, compared to the previous month, while primetime ratings spiked by 36 percent. In the key news demo of adults 25-54, ratings were up by more than 40 percent, per 605.

Those improvements outpace the gains for all other cable news channels, save for CNN, during the same period. On average, according to 605 data, cable news household ratings rose 25 percent in March for total day and 17 percent for primetime.

History Marathons Score

History Channel programs a lot of marathons during daytime hours and on weekends, from Pawn Stars to Hunting Hitler. The strategy has paid off during quarantine, with daytime viewing up 12 percent over the past four weeks compared to the first-quarter average and weekends up 16 percent.

The gains have spilled into primetime as well, where the docuseries The Curse of Oak Island drew its biggest audience in more than a year — 3.6 million viewers — on March 31. The new non-fiction series The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch averaged 2.1 million same-day viewers over its first two episodes, History's best nonfiction debut in two years.

What the Kids Are Watching

Some of the biggest gains in TV usage in the past month have come among kids who are no longer attending school — children under 12 had up to 50 percent more screen time during school closures.

Those numbers are reflected in ratings for Nickelodeon and Disney Channel: Nick and Disney are both up by more than 30 percent in the past four weeks vs. the month before that among their core viewers.