“Cable and broadcast networks have seen their audience reach evaporate, falling double digits over the past several years. That reach is increasingly focused on older, power users of live content,” the report said. “For cable networks, general entertainment, kids programming, and movies have been the hardest hit genres, with only sports and news bucking dramatic declines in viewership,” it continued.
Sports, especially the NFL and Summer Olympics, remain popular on linear broadcast channels, as the industry moved to a different model. In the future, sports and news will earn live audiences, but other programming will mostly be viewed on-demand.
The study also found that audiences of cable networks have continued to skew older. The authors noted that “older viewers may be cutting the cord, but younger folks are increasingly asking the question, ‘What is a cord?’”
As for cable networks, the three most-watched were news channels Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. But even then, all three saw decreases in time viewed from 2020 to 2021, as 2020 was a heavy news year with a presidential election. ESPN was the only major channel with a year-over-year viewership increase, in part because sports shut down for several months in 2020 before returning in 2021.
Overall, the top twenty cable networks posted an 18 percent drop in 2021.
As for the key demographic of adults between ages eighteen to forty-nine, cable networks dropped 9 percent in time viewed and 18 percent among overall viewers. The three cable news channels showed an increase in viewing among the eighteen to forty-nine demographic year-over-year, but because news channels skew older, that demographic category “remains a tiny portion of these channels' overall viewership.”
The report also showed that the pandemic changed how people watch television.
“Changes in viewing patterns over the pandemic have had a dramatic impact on ratings by content genre,” the Moffett Nathanson report said. “Looking at 2021 vs. 2019, while news and sports ratings have dropped modestly, there has been a collapse in content [for children], syndicated content, and movies. The broader adoption of streaming services, we assume, has driven this shift.”
Sports have emerged as the one “lifeline” for traditional pay-TV, even as sports leagues begin to make major streaming deals, including Major League Baseball’s recent deal with Apple.
“Networks and affiliates have managed to stave off a complete collapse of their revenues by matching declining viewership with inflating ad prices, but given the dramatic drop in certain cable networks’ reach, this long-running trend clearly looks less sustainable from here,” the report said.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.