Television

More Screen Time During Lockdown? Not for These Kids Cable Channels

Even if parents are going batty trying to keep their little ones entertained while cooped up at home during this pandemic, they’re not necessarily plunking the kids in front of the TV — not linear TV at least. Meanwhile, certain streaming services are seeing a lift in interest, underscoring the next generation’s shift in television viewing habits.

For the week of March 23-29, viewership of ad-supported kids’ linear cable networks — a group that includes Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD and others — slid 3% from the comparable week in March 2019, according to Bernstein research analysts, citing Nielsen figures. And that year-over-year decline actually marks a major improvement: prior to shelter-in-place measures being implemented, weekly viewership of those channels among 2- to 11-year-olds had been plummeting an average of 25% since the start of 2020.

“Even though the rate of decline significantly decelerated, it’s still in negative territory even though time available in front of TV is arguably as large as it can be,” wrote Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger on Monday. “It’s very likely that kids’ linear TV continues to lose significant share vs. other forms of entertainment, namely [subscription video on demand] services and video games.”

For comparison, looking at viewership metrics that span the entire day (which is how kids cable network viewing is tracked), broadcast network viewership rose 9% and cable tune-in increased 2%, said the firm. (By their usual primetime-only measurements, broadcast was flat vs. last year, while cable slid 10%, with ESPN in particular taking a massive knock from the lack of live sports on TV.)

By Juenger’s count, the week of March 23 was the second week that major U.S. metropolitan areas felt the impact of stay-at-home coronavirus guidance, though most states didn’t issue official advisories until at least mid- to late March — California ordered residents to shelter in place beginning March 19, Illinois on March 21, New York on March 22, Washington state on March 23, Virginia on March 25, and Texas on April 2, for instance. Nielsen data from the first week of April should show an even fuller picture of how much linear TV people are watching while in lockdown mode.

Attempts at homeschooling aside, parents have options for keeping preschoolers and grade schoolers from bouncing off the walls. The last few weeks have seen museums, zoos, educational organizations and entertainment outlets alike offer up a bevy of distance-learning resources to keep kids preoccupied while in the house. National Geographic, for one, launched NatGeo@Home, while PBS Kids created a weekday newsletter filled with suggested activities. Nickelodeon rolled out a multiplatform initiative, #KidsTogether, that includes short-form videos of, say, SpongeBob practicing social distancing.

Last week’s viewership stats mean that even with the nation’s children home from school for the time being and the New York Times allowing that parents can “Just Give Them the Screens (for Now),” linear cable is in a challenged spot.

Cartoon Network viewing fell 6.2% from the prior-year for the week of March 23. ViacomCBS-owned Nickelodeon saw a 15% year-over-year drop in viewership and Nicktoons slid around 12-13%, while Nick Jr. popped nearly 25%.

The dip in the former two Nick channels can arguably be chalked up to the platform and not the content: In March, Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra” and “Danny Phantom” were among the children’s series with the highest volume of streams and time spent on subscription streaming service CBS All Access, alongside “Bob the Builder.” And Nickelodeon’s Noggin app saw 11% month-over-month growth in paid subscribers in March and a 40% jump in free trial sign-ups.

CBS All Access, which just a few months ago ventured into the kid programming space (including originals), tells Variety it has seen a more than 30% month-over-month increase in both daily average streams and time spent watching children’s programming in March. “Polly Pocket,” “Strawberry Shortcake’s Berry Bitty Adventure” and “Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?” are seeing their “largest percentage growth to date,” per a spokesperson for the service. (Overall, All Access says March was its most-streamed month in existence.)

Meanwhile, Disney Plus is seeing a bump in interest as well. While the five-month-old streamer has not released viewership data, Google Trends shows a spike in searches for the service on March 13 — the day that the Walt Disney Co. announced that it would release the movie “Frozen 2” to the streaming service three months earlier than planned, in order to offer “some fun and joy during this challenging period.” (Netflix declined to comment on its viewership trends over the past month.)

But it’s not all bad news for traditional cablers. At least for Disney, a focus on its new streamer doesn’t seem to be detracting from its linear cable presence; Disney XD viewership notched up over 5% the week of March 23 — a reversal in trend from the weeks leading up to that.

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