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Many TV Networks Growing -- Just Not The Big Ones

Dave Morgan
Dave Morgan  |  Executive Chairman
Updated: Feb. 25, 2022
Published: Oct. 21, 2016

Headlines about TV viewership have not been particularly positive. Common themes lately have been: “TV ratings plummeting,” “NFL viewership in decline,”“Millennials unplug from TV,” or “Cord-cutting, cord-shaving growing.” Then there’s a big favorite lately: “TV can’t deliver reach like it used to.” While there’s some truth in all of these ideas, they don’t tell the whole story of TV viewership today.

First, overall TV viewership is not falling off a cliff. After four-plus decades of extraordinary growth, there is no question that the average amount of time Americans spend watching old-fashioned TV plateaued over the past few years and has now begun to decline. However, this overall decline is in the very small single digits annually.

Second, yes, it’s true that most marketers’ TV campaigns have been delivering significantly less reach quarter over quarter for years. But this is not a capacity issue.

Campaign reach has fallen on TV because buyers (and planning and measurement tools) have been too slow to activate on smaller networks (all of which deliver more audience ad minutes every day than any YouTube star).

TV has not lost overall reach. In fact, its overall ad-reach capacity has never been greater. What’s changed is that TV audiences have fragmented their viewing across hundreds of different channels and all of the dayparts, and most major brands keep making the same buys. They’re chasing the few shows with bigger ratings without trying to understand how to scientifically and efficiently re-aggregate the fragmented audiences. Doing so is hard work and takes time and investment, all in short supply in media buying today.

Third, many, many TV networks are actually growing their viewership, a number of them quite substantially.

Yes, the large broadcast networks have lost viewership. Average ratings for the top broadcast nets are down 23% over the past five years, and the top 20 cable networks experienced a similar 23% decline in average ratings over that time period as well. However, mid-sized cable networks only saw an 11% ratings decline over that time.

And, most importantly, average ratings for small cable networks like Ovation, NBA, Logo, FOX Sports 2 and Chiller grew their average rating by 21% over that time period.

Also, critically, the declines suffered by broadcast and large cable networks were substantially isolated to prime time. Collectively, networks only saw small single-digit percentage losses in non-prime dayparts.

Campaign reach has fallen on TV because buyers (and planning and measurement tools) have been too slow to activate on smaller networks (all of which deliver more audience ad minutes every day than any YouTube star).

Here’s what I think our industry must do to make sure that we don’t kill TV advertising long before it’s given way to the inevitable over-the-top future that we’ll see in the mid-2020s:

Act as if you care about reach. TV media buyers worked hard to maximize reach 10 and 20 years ago, and clients rewarded them for doing so. We need to get back to that mindset again.

Blindly buying wide and deep is not the answer. Just buying deep doesn’t guarantee reach. Advertisers need to use precision in complementing big and small spots, or they’ll just buy more frequency against heavy TV viewers.

Audit campaigns for reach. Marketers should audit their campaigns for reach, and should require TV media sellers to “post” on reach, not just GRPs. If you don’t measure it, you’ll have a tough time managing it.

Integrate reach analysis cross-channel. Someday, we’ll have omnichannel reach measurement across all media at the person and campaign level. While we’re not there yet — and probably won’t be for years – there is a lot that can be done to integrate and coordinate reach across the largest-reaching media channels, like TV and social. It’s time to start trying.

What do you think?