January National TV Numbers Hold Up Despite Ratings Falls

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Cover image for  article: January National TV Numbers Hold Up Despite Ratings Falls

Standard Media Index's (SMI) recently released January data shows that six major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox,NBC, Telemundo, and Univision) collectively pulled in $1.5 billion in gross ad revenue — a year-over-year increase of 4 percent. Cable snagged slightly over $1.8 billion in gross ad revenue for the month, a decline of 4.4 percent when compared to January 2019. Overall, total national television gross revenue fell by a modest 1.2 percent.

The slight loss in revenue is noteworthy since primetime ratings continue to register significant year-over-year ratings declines. This is a strong indication that, despite all the media choices available, national television remains a powerhouse for national advertisers, even with continued audience erosion. Viewability and fraud issues on digital are still causing major concerns for leading marketers and we expect to see TV hold up for some time given these challenges. Several networks, including CBS, Hallmark, and Univision bucked the trend and delivered strong performance in January.

Among the bright spots were postseason ratings for the NFL, which averaged 33.9 million viewers, similar to last January's 10 games. Coming from a position of strength (regular season ratings were up 5 percent), there is the expectation the NFL will open up negotiations for broadcast TV rights later this year looking for significant rate gains of up to 30 percent. The current broadcast TV contract expires in 2022.

Broadcast TV by Network

SMI's numbers show that, in January, the gross ad revenue for total day on CBS grew by 18 percent. This was, by far, the largest increase among the broadcast and cable networks. The underlying reason for this growth was moving The Grammy Awards from February in previous years to January this year to avoid conflict with ABC's Oscarstelecast. Despite advertisers paying a premium for the Grammys, the telecast has followed other premiere awards shows, delivering its lowest audience in 12 years.

With a strong regularly scheduled programming lineup and standing as the most-watched network, CBS also had the highest ad revenue in entertainment primetime programs. Helping to boost gross ad revenue was the NFL postseason. In January 2020, CBS televised four NFL playoff games — more than any other network — and one more than it broadcast in January 2019. In February 2020, expect a sizeable year-to-year falloff in gross ad revenue; not only did CBS televise the Grammys in February 2019, but also Super Bowl LIII.

Looking at January 2020,Fox ranked a distant second in gross ad revenue among the broadcast networks in total day, edging out NBC. However, Fox's total day gross revenues actually fell by 4 percent year-over-year. Similar to last year, NBC aired two postseason NFL games and The Golden Globes; while the NFL ratings held up, The Golden Globes hit an eight-year rating low. In primetime entertainment, NBC's gross ad revenue declined by 6 percent.

One reason for Fox's decline was that the network had televised three NFL postseason games in January 2020, compared to four in January 2019. (February 2020 will show a significant boost in gross ad revenue for Fox due to Super Bowl LIV.) The network, however, reported a much sharper year-over-year decline of 31 percent in gross ad revenue with primetime entertainment programs. This is a signal that Fox, after selling assets to Disney, will be relying more on live sports and other program types than entertainment.

ABC ranked fourth with gross ad revenue in January 2020 for total day, with a decrease of 7 percent from January 2019. The network took in less than half the revenue that CBS had earned for the month. In primetime entertainment, ABC ranked third (ahead of Fox), but still had a year-over-year decline of nearly 12 percent. Despite the decline, ABC did have one of the most eventful specials of the month: a primetime airing of the four-night, Jeopardy: Greatest of All-Time Tournament.The special was a hit, becoming the top-rated adult 18–49 show each night it aired.

Focusing in on the two most popular Spanish language networks, Univision joined CBS and NBC in increasing year-to-year gross ad revenue for total day in January 2020, while Telemundo declined. Univision benefitted from strong, double-digit, year-over-year audience gains in primetime. In January 2020, Univision had garnered more than twice the gross ad revenue than Telemundo.

Cable Networks

Each January, ESPN televises a number of college bowl games, culminating with cable's top-rated program, the College Football Playoff National Championship. This year's game (LSU versus Clemson) averaged 25.6 million viewers, a 1 percent increase from last year. ESPN's gross ad revenue jumped 4 percent over last January. Additionally, for the month, ESPN accounted for 13 percent of total cable gross ad revenue and had higher gross ad revenue than its broadcast partner, ABC.

With its affinity for holiday-themed movies, The Hallmark Channel has emerged as one of the top-rated entertainment programs on cable television. Gross ad revenue reported a year-over-year increase of 10 percent in January 2020. Conversely, USA Network, which was the top-rated cable network for years, has suffered a significant fall-off in ratings in recent years. USA reported a year-over-year gross ad revenue decrease of 24 percent. With the launch of Peacock in a few months, the question to ask is how much programming investment will be given to USA to keep the library content strong?

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