Is TV Feeling the Absence of Sports? Surprising Trends from Comcast's Viewership Report

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When it comes to television viewing, one of the best data sources is from Comcast's viewership data, which, according to Senior Director of Audience Insights, Heather Coghill (pictured below), "includes viewing data from over 17 million households across the Comcast footprint."

Twice a year, the company examines viewing trends in the aggregate, compiling them into an extensive TV Viewership Report. The most recent study was just released and contains a wealth of takeaways. There are even a few surprises, especially (spoiler alert) about Sports. Coghill shared the results with MediaVillage.

TV Viewership Report Takeaways

The report highlights, according to Coghill, "some surprising big picture viewing trends." After monitoring the data, Coghill contradicts those who predict the demise of linear TV. "There is a narrative in the press that television viewing is dying, and what we've seen in the two years we've been tracking this viewing data is that viewing has actually increased every quarter year over year for the past eight quarters. In the second quarter specifically, we saw that there was 15 minutes more per household per day being spent with the television compared to second quarter last year. That equates to about 17 more hours over the course of the quarter."

There is great confidence in these findings. "We are not limited by sample size," she explained, "so we can see super-niche viewing that maybe in a panel-type measurement would get cut off because they are not meeting minimum reporting standards."

Certainly sports' absence has been looming large in any discussion of television viewing during the pandemic. Even today, there is uncertainty about which sports are coming back, in what format and schedule, and when. Viewers want their sports programming and that desire is born out in the data and trends. "Sports returned in Summer 2020 with the MLB season openers and the first NHL and NBA restart games averaging a viewership increase of 71% over last year," she noted.

"Sports fans are hungry for that type of content," so much so that she discovered, "people who are sports fans are not just a fan of one sport. Fifty-five percent of heavy viewers of one sport watch three or more sports heavily. If certain sports aren't happening or are delayed or postponed, it's not that those people aren't tuning in. We can find them wherever they are watching."

To that end, Coghill is able to advise advertisers on how to reach those fans whose favorite sport might not be available at this time. As part of the study, Comcast data was placed in a viewing matrix that shows what other programming viewers of one sport are watching. Take for example a college football fan. "Who knows what is going to happen with college football – it might not come back. We can tell you where else you can reach those college football viewers," she said.

Since sports fans are sampling other types of sports while they wait for their favorite to return, there is, according to Coghill, anecdotal evidence to suggest that fan bases of these secondary sports choices might increase. "When the PGA was one of the first sports to resume, a lot of us at work were tuning into golf. Not because we are golf fans but just because we are so hungry for live events," she explained.

The data also showed an increase in viewing fragmentation partially attributed to the lack of sports tent pole events. But, "viewing has increased," she stated. "Advertisers need to move beyond being content focused and using content as a proxy to reach audiences. (They should) follow those audiences everywhere they may be going. So maybe it's more spots across lesser rated networks or dayparts. But if you aggregate all of those together we can still reach that audience."

As people shelter-in-place, Comcast found that households are, overall, spending even more time viewing television – about 15 minutes more per day in April to June compared to the same time last year. In fact, total hours of TV consumed in second quarter 2020 reached 8.5 billion hours which was an increase of over 200 million hours year over year.

Breaking it down by daypart, Coghill found that "seventy-one percent of all viewing happens outside of prime." On a market by market level, she reported that, "around the pandemic, we looked at (viewing) regionally and it was interesting. On the west coast where the coronavirus hit earlier, we saw an uptick in viewership earlier than what we saw in the rest of the country and then it leveled out before the viewing for the rest of the country leveled out."

Even day to day comparisons showed a shift in recent usage. "Cable's share increased substantially from weekday to weekend from 62% during the weekday to 68% on the weekend," she stated and added, "that's significant considering share between the two are typically consistent." Cable's dominance in weekend viewing, "is different from what we 've seen in the past," Coghill explained. "We think that, because sports aren't happening, there is less viewing going to the broadcast networks on the weekends."

Looking Ahead

Are we seeing these new viewing habits holding for the long term? "I think there are some things that will level out," Coghill admitted, "but I think some shifts are here to stay. The one thing that we've seen that is pretty consistent since the pandemic started in March is that there has been an increase in daytime viewing. So as more people are home and kids are home from school more people are available to watch television during the day. Until we resume some sort of normalcy, that will be here to stay," she concluded.

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