Ask Not Where the Broadcast TV Audience Went, It Went To Ad Supported Cable, And Still Is

We’ve seen that primetime broadcast network viewership has been on the decline since the early 80’s. But we’ve also seen that primetime TV viewing by household has been relatively flat from the early 90’s.

Where did the primetime broadcast TV network audience go?

It went, and continues to go, to ad supported basic cable networks.


Note that the percentage of US TV HHs (rating) viewing during prime-time has risen slowly over time, but the broadcast networks share of viewing has continued to drop during the period.

As the prime-time broadcast network audience began declining in the early 1980’s, it shifted to cable networks, and primarily basic/ad supported cable networks.

Some additional things jump out at me:

  • Independent Stations have joined up and become Network Affiliates. Note the ever growing list of networks below. I don’t have good data on the number of Independent stations vs. Network Affiliates, but conventional wisdom is that Independent station numbers have shrunk substantially over time. That’s why I colored both of those series blue. I think they should be considered part of the same viewership trend. Taken together, those two groups have gone from a rating of 54.5 to 26.6, a decline of 51%.
  • Public broadcast primetime viewing has fallen from a HH rating of 2.6 to 1.1, a percentage decline of about 58%.
  • In 1984-85 audiences were watching more Premium/Pay Cable than Ad/Basic cable. The growth of Ad Supported/Basic cable viewing was not followed by a similar growth in premium/pay cable viewing. Premium/Pay cable has seen its share fall modestly during the period. It’s hard to compare the Premium/Pay Cable numbers before 1999 with those after 1999 because of the definition change (noted below) though.
  • Today more people watch “other” cable (shopping, music, etc) cable than watch premium/pay cable.

Primetime HH Rating (% of  US TV Households Viewing) by Season, 1984-2009

Season Network Affiliates Independent Public Premium/Pay Cable Ad/Basic Cable Other Cable All Other Tuning
1984-85 44.8 9.7 2.6 4.0 3.6
1985-86 45.1 10.1 2.5 3.4 3.9
1986-87 43.3 10.5 2.7 3.3 4.7
1987-88 40.1 11.5 2.5 3.8 6.0
1988-89 38.7 11.7 2.4 3.9 7.5
1989-90 36.5 11.9 2.2 3.6 9.0
1990-91* 38.4 7.8 2.3 3.4 11.6
1991-92 41.0 5.5 2.1 3.1 12.8
1992-93 40.4 5.7 2.2 3.0 13.6
1993-94 40.5 6.1 2.2 3.0 14.1
1994-95 37.8 6.4 2.2 3.1 15.9
1995-96 35.7 6.6 2.1 3.3 18.0
1996-97 33.2 6.7 2.1 3.7 19.8
1997-98 31.4 6.7 2.0 3.9 22.3
1998-99 31.3 7.2 2.0 4.2 24.1
1999-00 34.7 2.1 2.0 3.5 24.0 1.9
2000-01 32.6 2.4 1.9 3.5 26.0 2.1
2001-02 30.3 2.5 1.6 3.5 28.2 2.1
2002-03 29.6 2.6 1.7 3.6 29.4 2.4
2003-04 28.9 2.9 1.6 3.4 30.9 2.9
2004-05 27.8 3.7 1.6 3.1 32.8 3.2
2005-06** 29.1 2.0 1.5 2.8 33.5 3.4 0.5
2006-07*** 28.1 1.2 1.4 2.6 33.8 3.0 2.4
2007-08*** 26.9 1.0 1.2 2.6 35.1 3.0 3.8
2008-09*** 25.6 1.0 1.1 2.8 36.3 3.1 3.8


Network Affiliates:
1984-90: ABC, CBS, NBC affiliates
1991-1999: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX Affiliates
1999-December 25, 2005: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WB, UPN, PAX affiliates
December 26, 2005-January 29 2006: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WB, UPN, UNI, PAX affiliates
January 30, 2006-February 26, 2006: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WB, UPN, UNI, TEL, PAX affiliates
February 27, 2006-August 27, 2006: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WB, UPN, UNI, TEL, TF, PAX affiliates
August 28, 2006 – September 3, 2006 : ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WB, UPN, UNI, TEL, TF, AZA, PAX affiliates
September 4, 2006 – 2008: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW, UNI, TEL, TF, AZA, ION, MNT affiliates
2008 – Present : ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW, UNI, TEL, TF, AZA, ION, affiliates

Independent:
1984-90: Commercial independent stations including FOX affiliates and TBS
1991-99: Commericial independent stations including WB, UPN affiiliates and superstations except forTBS.
1999-2006: Commercial independent stations including Telemundo and Univision affiliates. Excludes TBS
2006-present: Commercial independent stations including Telemundo and Univision affiliates. Excludes TBS

Public: PBS affiliates

Ad Supported/Basic Cable:
1984-99: Tuning to basic cable including Pay-Per-View
1991-1999: Tuning to basic cable including TBS and Pay-Per-View.
1999-present: Viewing to advertiser supported cable networks. Includes TBS and WGN cable.

All Other Cable:
1984-99: Tuning to basic cable including Pay-Per-View
1999-present: tuning to cable networks that are neither ad-supported nor premium pay, includes pay-per-view, interactive channels, home shopping channels, and audio only feeds.

Premium/Pay Cable:
1999-present: Viewing to premium pay cable services.
1984-99: Cable Subscribers receiving at least one premium channel. This does not include Pay-Per-View.

All Other Tuning: Tuning where the source was not encoded and Nielsen was not able to measure what was watched.

*Effective 1991, FOX changed from Independents to Network Affiliates and and TBS changed from Independents to Basic Cable.
**Combination of Live data and Live+7 data.
***Live+7 data
All years prior to 2005-6 are Live Data.

Nielsen TV Ratings Data: ©2010 The Nielsen Company. All Rights Reserved.

Posted by:TV By The Numbers

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