Without Live Sports, Fans Switch to Binge-Watching and News

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Key insights:

Live sports programming came to a screeching halt last week as leagues including the NBA and MLB suspended their seasons in response to the growing spread of COVID-19. In the absence of their favorite TV programming, sports fans are flocking to streaming shows—and in some cases keeping their TVs off entirely.

Last weekend, regular sports fans spent 47% more time streaming compared to the previous weekend, according to data from Inscape, which pulls automatic content recognition (ACR) information from more than 14 million Vizio television sets. (“Regular sports fans” were defined as viewers who normally spent at least one continuous hour watching sports programming.)

About 10% of those viewers didn’t watch linear TV at all when sports weren’t available, according to the data. Instead, they switched over to a variety of different programming, including comedies, dramas, documentaries and news.

C-SPAN saw the biggest viewership bump among sports fans, with 40% of normal sports viewers tuning in, followed by CNN, which saw a 35% increase. That spike in news consumption tracks with an overall increase in news viewership amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Among non-news cable networks, Discovery Family, Travel Channel and the Spanish-language Universo saw the biggest boost in viewership from normal sports viewers.

Among all viewing Inscape measured, last weekend was a big one for binge-watching. Law & Order: SVU was the most-watched show last weekend either through video on demand or DVR viewing, followed by Westworld and NCIS: Los Angeles. The Office and The Big Bang Theory were the fourth- and fifth-most watched shows over the weekend.

(The Big Bang Theory is currently only available to watch via TBS VOD, as it is not available on any streaming service; it’ll be a major library title for WarnerMedia’s HBO Max service when it debuts in May.)

As people are directed to stay home and social distance to limit the spread of the virus, there was unsurprisingly a bump in linear and streaming viewership last weekend. Linear viewers watched 10% more TV overall, and streaming viewers consumed 10% more content, according to the data; the average watch session on OTT spanned 34 minutes, while linear viewing sessions were shorter, at 19 minutes on average.

Together, that counted for an 8.6% increase in viewing sessions from March 8-15 compared to the previous week. Usage of ad-supported video-on-demand apps was up 19% in the period, and there was a 9% bump in users on TV apps overall, according to Inscape.

The data tracks with the widespread understanding that television viewership is going up at a time when people are confined to their homes. Netflix this week saw a boost in pandemic-related programming, and some film distributors are opting to make their theatrical releases available to rent or buy in-home as people turn to their television or laptop screens for entertainment.

Streamers, whose video-on-demand offerings make them well suited to capitalize on a massive captive audience, are rolling out promotional offers and early releases to try to attract viewers.

The drop-off in linear viewing in particular highlights some of the challenges faced by linear networks as they look to rejigger their schedules and account for the “uncharted territory” of a live sports-less schedule. Disney-owned ESPN has begun airing archived programming and revived The Ocho, as ad sales chief Rita Ferro has offered some guidance as to the company’s short-term ad sales strategies to help clients forge ahead.

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