A cooped-up audience hungry for information on the coronavirus is driving up viewership of TV news to extraordinary levels.
Cable and broadcast networks typically see a Nielsen ratings bump when the public is captivated by a major crisis. But the networks have rarely experienced anything quite like the viewership surge they are seeing at all hours of the day, as half the country is ordered to stay home in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
A stark example was the Fox News broadcast from the White House on Tuesday with President Trump and other officials discussing the crisis. The audience of 4.4 million viewers was the largest ever for a cable news "town hall" style program, even though it aired at noon Eastern time when there are typically fewer people available to watch.
Despite criticism that it initially downplayed the virus outbreak, Fox News had its most-watched week of 2020 from March 16 -- 22, with an average of 2.5 million throughout the day, a 73% increase over a comparable week last year. It was followed by CNN's 1.55 million viewers, which was up 151% from last year; and MSNBC, which drew 1.48 million viewers for a 45% gain in viewers.
The three broadcast network evening newscasts -- which have seen their clout diminish in recent years as more viewers turn to cable and the internet -- are seeing their highest viewing levels in more than 15 years. Last week, they averaged 32 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That was the most viewers since January 2004, before streaming and the widespread use of DVRs.
"ABC World News Tonight with David Muir" and "NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt" locked up the entire 10 most watched programs during March 16 – 22, including all prime time shows ranked by Nielsen.
Muir's program averaged 12.5 million viewers for the week -- a level not seen in 20 years since Peter Jennings anchored the program -- while Holt scored 12 million viewers. NBC is even giving a second run of Holt's broadcast in some markets. "CBS Evening News with Norah O'Donnell" drew 7.6 million viewers.
"I suspect some of it is inter-generational viewing occurring while people are sheltering in place," said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. "Evening news broadcasts have an older audience. The people who watch those shows faithfully and make it part of their routine are older. I wonder whether they are continuing that routine but now with extended families."
Traditional television viewing, which has steadily declined in recent years as more people turn to streaming for video entertainment, has been seeing gains overall since the pandemic has driven Americans indoors.
During the week March 3 -- 8, the percentage of U.S. homes watching TV in prime-time was 47.5 %. Last week, the figure was up to 52.9%. The growth has been even higher among younger viewers, who have been abandoning TV in droves in recent years.