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Cable Viewing Down 18% in 2022, Analyst Predicts Linear Evolving to Predominantly Live Programming

Lauren Forristal

Today, MoffettNathanson published their “State of Linear Viewing (2021)” report, and the future for linear TV is bleak. Not only is overall cable network viewing down by 18% in 2022, “Time spent on cable networks built on movies, syndicated TV and kids content has collapsed over the past two years,” wrote senior analyst Michael Nathanson.

“As a result, it is clear as day, looking at a two-year stack, that live sports and news are rising in importance and value to linear stakeholders,” he added. “There has been a dramatic reduction in the consumption of original scripted cable network content as audiences move to SVOD for that fare … In the end, linear viewing appears headed to a world of ‘live’ programming while almost every other genre is served on demand.”

According to a recent Nielsen report, subscriptions in the U.S. have been down 18% since 2019 as linear TV struggles to retain customers. And it’s obvious by now that the only genres working on linear are live sports and news.

Networks such as AMC, FX, and Comedy Central “face a real existential threat from streaming. Without either sports or news, these networks simply do not provide any of the content we believe will keep viewers tuning into linear,” Nathanson said.

In addition, time spent viewing kids’ content on linear television declined by a massive 53% from 2019 to 2021, analysts discovered. The biggest hits were taken by Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, dropping 34% and 23% respectively.

While MoffettNathanson isn’t saying kids stopped watching shows like “Thomas and Friends: All Engines Go” and “Blue’s Clues & You!” altogether, kids watching via a traditional cable bundle is pretty much obsolete at this point. However, it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the networks, since Nickelodeon is a major part of Paramount+ and Pluto TV, whereas Cartoon Network’s library rules HBO Max and Hulu.

The top cable network to show an increase was ESPN, which is unsurprising since live sports seems to be the only bandaid holding linear together. ESPN was fourth in terms of time viewed, and the only cable channel in the Top 20 to actually grow over that one-year period (2020 to 2021). ESPN was the only channel to experience ratings growth (+15%)as well in 2021.

On broadcast, unscripted and original programming each shed about one-quarter of their time viewed since before 2020. While the news is only down 8%, we’ll reiterate (once again) that live sports are what saves the day. MoffettNathanson found that a whopping 77% of the time viewed on the Fox broadcast network is for live sports, a 28% spike from a decade ago. The most significant growth in absolute time viewed on cable came from the NBA on Turner cabler TNT.

Nathanson then looked at the top three shows on each of the top 30 networks. “Of the 60 shows on this list of the top three shows per cable network, only 14 increased in time viewed from 2020 to 2021. NBA on TNT experienced the largest increase in absolute time viewed in 2021. ESPN’s NCAA football coverage did third best. Paramount’s ‘Yellowstone’ stands out as one of the few scripted shows to grow, near the top of the list, coming in fourth,” wrote the senior analyst.

“Many of cable networks’ biggest shows experienced significant declines from 2020 to 2021. Movies declined between -9% and -18% across FX, AMC, and Freeform, making up 84% to 90% of total ratings,” said the report.

There’s no doubt that pay-TV is in a state of decline. Non-live time viewed has fallen off a cliff, falling on average -8% annually over the past decade. Sports and news are where Pay TV continues to distinguish itself and will continue to find a lifeline.

“For years, we have prophesied that the future of the linear bundle will be driven by live sports, news, and events… we are here to say that the future has arrived,” said Nathanson.

It is up to the networks to either throw in the towel on linear and continue the move to streaming, or to find a new, disruptive way to revive their antiquated business model.

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