Having already caused some 300,000 deaths worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic is, first-and foremost, a terrible human tragedy for those affected. The outbreak’s timing also means it will have important consequences for the future of the TV business. A global pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020 and the UK population went into lockdown on March 23. With huge numbers of people now confined to their homes, the result has been a major spike in linear TV viewing as the UK population looks for news and current affairs programming to inform, perennial TV favorites to reassure, and innovative entertainment to engage and distract.
With isolation having been imposed towards the end of March, the April 2020 UK TV viewing data represents the first full month under lockdown conditions and so is a useful indicator of trends that have developed. Omdia restricted this analysis to viewing via TV set. When comparing the April 2019 ratings data to that of April 2020, the most unsurprising finding is the impact on news consumption. BBC One’s Six O’Clock News bulletin, for example, averaged 6.43 million viewers across April 2020, up more than 54% on the 4.17 million average for April 2019.
Amongst prime time shows the trend is also noticeably up, although less significantly. ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent averaged 10.34 million viewers in April 2020, up by 6.7% on the 9.69 million average in April 2019. Amongst the UK’s leading trio of soaps, ITV’s Coronation Street saw an 11.9% increase in viewers, Emmerdale a 5.2% increase, and BBC One’s EastEnders viewership was up by 7%. The more limited increase for the soaps suggests they have an entrenched fanbase that already tunes in regularly, so leaving relatively little scope for additional viewers.
Looking beyond the main channels gets even more interesting. BBC Two’s reality show Race Across the World attracted 3.23 million viewers in April 2019, while the April 2020 average was up 27.3% to 4.11 million. BBC Two’s Great British Menu cooking show did even better, with a 48.2% rise from 1.47 million in 2019 to 2.18 million in 2020. Channel 4’s innovative Gogglebox posted the most impressive increase of all the major shows across the UK’s five main terrestrial channels. It averaged 5.77 million viewers in April 2020, up 62% on the 3.56 million average it attracted in April 2019. Channel 4’s Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back also did extremely well, with April 2020 viewership up 57.2% against April 2019—so again marking Channel 4’s edgier, more youthful programming line-up an obvious beneficiary of the lockdown environment. When these shows are presented to new eyeballs, the reaction is positive.
Figure 1: UK: COVID-19’s Impact On TV Viewing, April 2019 vs. April 2020
Source: Omdia analysis of BARB data
The rise of online video viewing via smartphones, tablet, and other devices has, over the past decade, created a much more fragmented home viewing environment, with children retreating to bedrooms to watch their preferred content. The unsettling nature of a pandemic has temporarily changed the dynamics. Children and younger adults are returning to the living room and grouping together with the entire family for reassurance. This is one of the phenomena driving the higher ratings for linear TV viewing, as households search for shows that the entire family can watch together using the main TV screen.
Lockdown therefore offers a unique opportunity for TV broadcasters to audition their content to an audience that would have otherwise passed them by. During this lockdown period they need to present viewers with programming that creates revised viewing patterns whereby new viewers are encouraged to continue watching even when normality eventually resumes. By successfully engaging with this captive audience now, TV executives could extend the shelf-life of a medium that had been rapidly becoming reliant on older demographics. But this will not be easy against a backdrop of falling advertising revenue and incredibly difficult conditions for producing new content. But the example of Gogglebox and other creative formats shows the demand is there for the right content.
The flip side to this opportunity is more negative of course. With production on hold, a crucial moment will come if circumstances dictate that the major networks run out of their stockpile of soap episodes. These are the glue that hold the networks’ schedules together. Without them there is a danger of core viewers discovering and migrating to new online formats and, in the most pessimistic scenario, never returning. Filling the upcoming schedules in a way that makes the most of new audiences and retains core audiences—so avoiding the gloomier scenarios—is therefore a crucial challenge for channel controllers in the coming months.
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