TV and the Three Phases of Quarantine

In March, as shelter in place orders rolled out, VideoAmp began preparing briefings for our clients on the latest patterns and trends we were seeing in how Americans were watching TV. Buyers and sellers wanted to understand how these profound events were affecting TV consumption, so they could understand how to modify strategies.

As time wore on, we began to think in terms of what have been, thus far, the three phases of quarantine.

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Early Quarantine: March 9 through April 12

In the early weeks of quarantine, interest in news spiked dramatically; CNN audiences almost tripled, and MSNBC and Fox News audiences were up 50% (see Navigating the New Normal). Indeed these were the three networks showing the biggest gains over pre-quarantine 2020 levels. Linear TV viewing was up across dayparts; predictably, the biggest increase was during Monday-Friday Daytime, which was up on the order of 30%. Early Fringe was up dramatically as well, with weekly increases relative to pre-quarantine running around 15% to 20%. Late Fringe and Overnight were also big gainers; with the vast majority of the workforce no longer commuting, we weren’t getting up quite so early, and so there were more eyeballs available after Prime Time.

Viewing to app-based TV (streaming services available from Smart TV app screens, or via OTT devices such as Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire) was up as well — double the percent increase of linear. Without the ability to go to ballgames, concerts, restaurants, or the movies, or even to socialize with friends at the local pub, Americans increasingly turned to connected TV services for entertainment. Connected TV usage was up over 40% versus a pre-quarantine baseline.

Without live sports, heavy sports-viewing households tended to scatter across other content types; sports viewers demonstrated an affinity for “infotainment” content, but too, largely they yielded control of the remote to other household members.

Mid-Quarantine: April 13 through May 3

During what VideoAmp now sees as the middle phase of quarantine, we’d successfully “flattened the curve.”  Commerce began to pick back up, and Americans began to cautiously venture outside to essential retailers that were permitted to remain open. The NFL draft, and the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance, provided the sports viewer with exciting, original content to rally around; this latter development had a tangible impact on audiences to ESPN, ABC, and the NFL Network.

Linear tuning began to taper off somewhat, although it remained higher than it had been prior to quarantine. Daytime tuning remained higher than pre-quarantine, but by the week of April 27, this increase was about 19%, down about a third from early quarantine peaks. Late Fringe and Overnight viewing remained strong, up 12% to 16% by week and 4% to 7% by week, respectively. Meanwhile, app-based tuning remained robust, holding the increases we saw in early quarantine.

Locally, Miami, New York, and Detroit held on to double-digit increases, and Baltimore also entered the list of top-10 biggest gaining TV markets. More markets showed tuning declines than had been the case in early quarantine, especially among the western, less-dense markets. Grand Junction, Helena, Chico-Redding, Idaho Falls, and Missoula were among the markets exhibiting the greatest tuning declines in mid-quarantine against a 2020 pre-quarantine baseline.

Recent Quarantine: May 4 to Present 

During the phase we think of as recent quarantine, states began opening up, and the weather has turned nice as spring has descended across most of the country. Meanwhile, we’re still missing live sports, and we have become fatigued with the news (although please note, the analysis we’ve done doesn’t reflect the impact of the recent protests on TV viewing in general, and news viewing in particular). 

Linear tuning has returned to pre-quarantine levels, but the increase we’ve seen in app-based tuning has largely held. Indeed we believe that quarantine will end up having served to accelerate the migration of TV tuning from linear to digital, app-based streaming. 

In order to understand the impact of early opening on TV tuning, we took a look at the TV markets that rank among the 50 largest, and that are in early-to-open states; in the chart below we look at these markets:

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(Note that these are indices by quarantine phase against pre-quarantine; and that the X-axis is at 90, not zero).

You can see that all these markets saw total linear TV tuning decline precipitously as we moved into recent quarantine and their states opened up. With the exception of Houston and San Antonio, each market shows tuning in recent quarantine below pre-quarantine levels. 

For comparison, let’s also look at some major TV markets in states that were not yet open:

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While these markets all show declines in recent quarantine, for the most part, they have still been watching more linear TV than in the weeks before quarantine. New York, which had been up 16% in early and mid-quarantine, is still up 7%; Detroit shows a similar pattern.  

Key Takeaways

On a personal note, what becomes most clear to me in looking at TV data these past few months has been our resiliency. We dug in for the long haul early on, working from home, watching more daytime TV, glued to the news. We turned more to app-based, connected TV for entertainment, as we were no longer able to go to the gym, to dinner, to a friend’s house. We missed sports, and still do, but we were glued to the news to find out the latest with COVID-19. But as time wore on, we settled into a groove, developed new patterns, began integrating activities outside the home into our routines as we could, and TV viewing reflected that. Most recently, those of us that can are venturing out again. TV remains a vital part of our way of life, even as it expands and fragments across platforms.