The COVID-19 pandemic has reached its one-year mark across much of the globe. In a year marked by a constant deluge of bad news, political polarization, and pervasive uncertainty, TV and video entertainment provided Americans with a much needed escape. New data from Nielsen calls attention to the importance of TV as a means for Americans to sustain themselves and their sense of community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While certain new releases, like “The Mandalorian” on Disney+, saw spikes during the stay home period, Nielsen data indicates that most viewers sought the comfort of old, familiar favorites throughout the pandemic. Nielsen revealed that “library content” is what viewers most often “watch casually” and return to, as these shows have pre-established connections with audiences. Additionally, Scott Reich, SVP programming at Pluto TV, reported a massive influx of viewers around the 2020 election. “It was an interesting combination of people coming in for COVID-19 and election news and then diving into escapist content," Reich noted.
The trend toward escapist entertainment can be underscored by the popularity of “The Office,” which is now available on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s streaming platform. When asked what they did during lockdown, notes Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen’s SVP of Product Strategy, most Americans will say they hung out with Jim and Pam and made fun of Michael. In 2020, “The Office” attracted over 10 million viewers on streaming platforms and another 11 million viewers for episodes airing in syndication on Comedy Central, local stations and other sources. In fact, Americans watched the equivalent of 100,000 years worth of “The Office” during the over the past year. “It’s a comfortable place to be,” Fuhrer says, “you’re inside the joke at a time when you have a lot of stress.” Other top shows included “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds,” both with over 35 million minutes viewed, and “NCIS,” with nearly 30 million minutes viewed.
The data also indicates that Americans have relied on TV and video content to retain their sense of community during an incredibly isolating period. “COVID-19 has pulled trends forward like digital co-viewing where two people in different locations watch a show simultaneously," said Sarah Lyons, SVP, product experience for HBO Max.
Nielsen’s analysis also revealed that audiences preferred traditional weekly release schedules over dropping a whole series at one time. The overall consistency in minutes viewed favored a weekly rollout approach. “This strategy extracts more value out of premium content,” Fuhrer said, “It’s watercooler TV, giving people time to talk about each episode.”
These viewership trends played out across all demographics. Older demographics subscribed to streaming services in record numbers during the stay home period and increasingly viewed TV and video content through both streaming and traditional linear services. Children’s’ programming also took off, which landed Disney+ titles like “Frozen II” and “Moana” on the 2020 top 10 list. In fact, Fuhrer noted that Disney+ grew very quickly with a comparatively small library and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) reported that Disney+ hit 50 million global subscribers in just five months after launch, in contrast to the seven years it took Netflix.
Children’s content, in particular, has an added benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike adults, kids watch their favorite shows and movies time and time again. At a time when many children were home as parents also tried to work remotely, repeat viewings provided tremendous value for families, helping many cope with the realities of having an entire family at home during the workday.
To sum up the year, Fuhrer once again looks to the confluence of events that would have each individually been the biggest news in other years. This environment sent American consumers to TV as a means of comfort and escape, both through traditional linear TV and new streaming platforms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, TV not only became invaluable to consumers, but also helped Americans find community while they were physically apart.