What People Watch: News channel reach

31 March 2020

Barb delivers television viewing figures every day, offering a wealth of insight into people’s behaviour. This article is the first in a new series from Barb called What People Watch, exploring different aspects of how UK audiences are watching television now.

Over the past month, the UK has experienced unprecedented change as it responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. Television is a key medium for people to get the latest news on the fast-moving situation. As Barb measures viewing on a daily basis, we can already see how viewer behaviour is changing.

TV set viewing to Barb-reported channels

For the week ending March 22nd 2020 (calendar week 12), consolidated 7-day TV set viewing to Barb-reported channels was 210 minutes a day on average. This is an increase of 28 minutes a day compared with the same week in 2019. As the chart above shows, viewing in the earlier weeks of 2020 has generally been below 2019 levels, so the additional viewing in week 12 has bucked the trend. This level of 3 hours and 30 minutes of TV set viewing a day is approaching the amounts that we usually see over Christmas – traditionally the peak period of television viewing.

The chart also shows the level of unidentified viewing on a TV set, which includes all types of TV set use that aren’t viewing to a Barb-reported channel or service. This could be DVD viewing, catch-up viewing more than 28 days after broadcast, gaming, or viewing to SVOD or online video services. On a weekly basis, the 2020 level has tracked above 2019, but again, there has been a recent jump. Week 12 saw the number of unidentified viewing minutes rise to 71 a day on average – an increase of 19 minutes compared with the same week in 2019, though still far below the viewing minutes to Barb-reported channels.

This chart does not yet include the viewing from the week ending March 29th (week 13), which included the Prime Ministerial address with the stay-at-home directive. Current indications from live + VOSDAL viewing data are that week 13 will see continued strong performance for viewing to Barb-reported channels, as well as for unidentified viewing.

Daily reach of news channels

As you might expect, rolling-news channels in particular have experienced a growth in viewing. This chart shows the daily reach of BBC News and Sky News, averaged over a weekly basis. The reach represents the number of viewers who tuned in to these channels daily on a TV set, without counting them a second time if they tune in again on the same day.

Across 2020, the reach of these channels has been tracking generally higher than the comparable weeks in 2019, likely due to continued Brexit coverage up to and including Brexit day on 31st January, followed by viewers tuning into coverage of the winter storms. But in the last few weeks, these channels have been reaching even more viewers – for the week ending March 22nd 2020 (calendar week 12), the average daily reach of both BBC News and Sky News on a TV set was more than double the levels of week 12 in 2019.

This increased news viewing is not confined to the rolling-news channels; viewing to the main terrestrial bulletins has also grown. Looking at national news broadcasts on BBC1, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 this year through to March 22nd 2020, the most-watched bulletin of the year so far was BBC1’s News at Six on March 18th, with 8.8m average viewers (consolidated 7-day TV set viewing). This is the highest national news bulletin on these terrestrial channels since 2012. In week 12 (week ending March 22nd 2020), six of the top ten programmes across all channels were news broadcasts.

Prime Ministerial broadcast

On March 23rd at 20:30, Boris Johnson addressed the nation about the coronavirus pandemic and the need for all citizens to stay at home. Simulcast across BBC1, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky News and BBC News, the six-minute broadcast drew an average audience of 28.2 million viewers (consolidated 7-day TV set), making it one of the most-watched broadcasts in UK television history. Audience share in this slot was over 83%, meaning that 4 in 5 people watching television at the time were tuned in to the broadcast.

For a programme of such a short duration, it is difficult to accurately place it within the list of most-watched programmes in UK history, but the 7-day consolidated average audience across four screens of 28.3m is higher than the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics (which both attracted average audiences of 24.5m), and almost 60% higher than 2019’s top-rated programme, the Christmas Day episode of Gavin and Stacey, which attracted 17.9 million viewers.

As the stay-at-home instruction remains in place and broadcast schedules and programming continue to adapt in response, we can expect to see further changes in people’s viewing behaviour. Barb will continue to monitor these changes in further editions of What People Watch.

Jeremy Martin, Insights Manager, Barb

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