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What TV Ratings Tell Us About Life in a Pandemic

The last month has seen viewers flock to their TV sets in ways we haven't seen in years.
  • (Photos: HBO, Netflix, Hulu, NBC)
    (Photos: HBO, Netflix, Hulu, NBC)

    It should come as no surprise that TV ratings have experienced a spike over the last month. With the coronavirus pandemic having forced most of us to stay at home since early-to-mid March, for many there's little to do other than watch TV. 

    It's a welcome reprieve for the broadcast networks in particular, coming at a time of the year when they've traditionally braced themselves for seasonal viewership losses that have contributed to the gradual decline in overall ratings for years now. Instead of taking those usual hits, like their streaming counterparts, most broadcasters have also seen a noticeable bump.


    David Muir on World News Tonight. (ABC)

    It didn’t take long to begin seeing the effect on ratings for the various broadcast networks. A number of nightly news broadcasts experienced major viewership gains in the second half of March, with ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC’s Nightly News averaging 12 million viewers across all their broadcasts for the week of March 16th - March 22nd. The spike brought World News Tonight its largest average audience since 2000, and the largest since 2005 for Nightly News.

    The spike’s impact didn’t start or end with the evening news either. April alone has seen network  shows like New Amsterdam, The Resident, The Masked Singer, FBI, The Good Doctor, NCIS, Young Sheldon, Mom, The Rookie, All Rise, Bull, and Grey’s Anatomy reach their largest same-day audiences of the entire 2019-20 TV season

    TV viewership has grown outside the primetime hours as well, with multiple daytime TV shows seeing their ratings rise in recent weeks. Those particular bumps can mostly be attributed to schools shutting down throughout the country, resulting in children being home all day, as opposed to just afternoons and nights.

    Carole Baskin in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix)

    Unlike broadcast and cable networks, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu don't release official ratings or viewership statistics for their shows, which makes it less clear exactly how much of a bump they’ve experienced since quarantining began. However, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, told CNN back in March that viewing is up on the platform. That’s not a hard claim to believe either, based on Nielsen’s recent estimates that the streamer’s original docuseries, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, averaged almost 19 million viewers in its first 10 days on the platform, reaching an even more staggering 34.3 million viewers in the same amount of time. 

    For context, those numbers make Tiger King one of Netflix’s most successful original series ever, putting it close to the massive 20.5 million viewers that the third season of Stranger Things reportedly averaged in its first 10 days of release. Considering the fanbase that Stranger Things had to cultivate across two seasons to achieve that kind of success, there’s little doubt that the increased number of TV viewers stuck at home right now are one of the primary reasonsTiger King has been able to pull in such high numbers. 

    Meanwhile, WarnerMedia revealed that from March 14th to March 24th the usage levels for HBO NOW were the highest since summer 2019, when Game of Thrones was nearing the end of its much-talked-about final season. The company went on to state that users’ overall time spent on the HBO NOW platform was up 40% from its average across the previous 4 weeks. Interestingly, WarnerMedia also noted that the first season of Euphoria doubled its 4-week average across the same 10 days, while Big Little Lies, Chernobyl, Game of Thrones, and His Dark Materials all experienced viewership gains in “excess of 50%.” Classic HBO titles like The Wire, Sex and the City, and The Sopranos were all said to have posted notable gains, as well.

    Hulu has similarly reported an increase in activity on its platform, with a 25% increase in binge-viewing (classified as watching 3 or more episodes before stopping) in the final 2 weeks of March. Reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and American Idol, and dramas like 9-1-1, Fear The Walking Dead, and The Handmaid’s Tale were also said to have experienced the largest viewership spikes, while Hulu’s new original series, Little Fires Everywhere, reportedly scored more viewing hours across those 2 weeks than any other drama available on the platform. Additionally, the streamer reportedly experienced a 40% increase in its users' live news viewing from the previous two weeks.

    Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere. (Hulu)

    Taking all of this into account, it’s clear that practically every TV provider in the world is experiencing some kind of viewership spike right now, even as many of them are also dealing with widespread production shutdowns and other workflow delays. You may be wondering, though, what exactly these numbers really tell us about the current moment, aside from the fact that more people are watching TV than before?

    They tell us that some people are watching TV to stay informed, while others are using TV to keep their kids entertained during the daytime hours when they have to work. Some of us are using it as an opportunity to finally watch those shows that have been stuck on our “need to watch” lists for years, and some of us are just using it to rewatch old favorites. In other words, we're all having our own unique responses to this current situation, but if there’s one thing we have in common, it's that we’re stuck inside... and most of us are watching something

    Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.

    TOPICS: Ratings, Little Fires Everywhere, NBC Nightly News, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, World News Tonight, Coronavirus