The Grim TV Ratings Reality of 2020

90 Day Fiance Chicago Fire Schitts Creek Greys Anatomy Split
TLC; Photofest (3)

When the first set of widespread pandemic stay-at-home orders came down in March, TV usage soared across the board. Several network series, including NBC's Chicago shows and ABC's Grey's Anatomy, drew their largest audiences in months, even years, even as streaming was also climbing.

It didn't last. TV usage came down to its usual level within a couple of months, meaning the temporary ratings gains of March and April couldn't reverse larger, systemic declines on ad-supported networks. As the pandemic caused production delays on scores of shows destined for spring and summer, a dwindling inventory of shows on traditional networks further depressed viewing.

As the year draws to a close, that leaves much of traditional TV in a sizable hole. The Big Four broadcast networks all fell at least 10 percent in total viewers and 12 percent or more in the key ad-sales demographic of adults 18-49 from 2019 to 2020. The CW bled 25 percent of its total audience and 40 percent in the 18-49 demo.

Cable channels aren't faring any better. Excluding news channels — which were up year to year — 69 cable nets averaged at least 100,000 viewers in primetime in 2020. Only 20 maintained or grew their audience from 2019; on average primetime viewership declined by 10 percent, and 30 fell by more than that.

In the 18-49 demo, 57 cable channels (again excluding news channels) averaged 50,000 or better viewers for the year. Just two, TLC and Pop TV, improved over 2019. Pop's gains were built on the final season of Schitt's Creek, but it's currently without a single original series following the cancellation of One Day at a Time and the purging of three other shows (Flack, Florida Girls and the unaired Best Intentions) by parent company ViacomCBS.

Those 57 channels lost an average of 18 percent of their primetime 18-49 audiences, falling from an average of 218,000 viewers in that age group last year to 179,000 this year. Almost three-quarters, 42 of 57, dropped by 10 percent or more.

TLC is among the success stories of the year, growing in both adults 18-49 (from 422,000 in 2019 to 455,000) and total viewers (1.19 million to 1.38 million) on the backs of its very popular and multi-headed 90 Day Fiancé franchise. The Discovery-owned outlet is also on track to end the year as the No.1 ad-supported cable network among women 18-54, its core audience. It's set to have its best year ever among women 25-54 and 17-year highs in women 18-49.

Spanish-language broadcaster Univision was also a bright spot, growing its total audience by 11 percent (1.3 million to 1.45 million) vs. 2019 and increasing its 18-49 viewership by 6 percent (546,000 to 579,000). The company's secondary channel UniMás also grew and ranks in the top 35 of all ad-supported networks in both total viewers and the 18-49 demographic.

Another growth area: digital broadcast networks like Me TV, Bounce and Cozi, which largely rely on classic series and movies and therefore didn't have their content pipelines interrupted this year. Six such channels, which largely air on digital subchannels of local stations, grew their viewership vs. 2019.

2020 was an atypical year, and it's likely that a more normal flow of production in 2021 will help flatten out the declines for ad-supported networks to a degree. Changing viewer habits, however, is far less likely — audiences increasingly accustomed to streaming shows on their own time aren't likely to flip back to a set schedule in large numbers.