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The Pandemic, Politics and Social Unrest Continue to Drive Local News Viewing in 2021

4 minute read | January 2021

From a news perspective, 2020 was a year like no other. And as we settle into the prospect of a fresh start in 2021, a divided nation still living in a pandemic continues to elevate the importance of news, particularly at the local level. It’s clear that consumers’ on-demand lifestyles are having an effect on leisure time video viewing, but the unsettled population in the U.S. has elevated the importance of news to consumers across the country looking to stay informed about everything from social unrest to the presidential election to the protests and riots at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

Linear TV viewing is at a crossroads, given the shift away from scheduled, appointment viewing on TV, but consumers are voracious when it comes to wanting to stay informed. And that elevates the opportunity for news programming across local, national and cable. For example, person-level live + time-shifted viewing on Jan. 6, 2021, rivaled viewing on Jan. 3, 2021—the final Sunday of the regular NFL season.

Despite the rise in streaming video consumption, the value of local TV can’t be overstated, especially when it comes to news programming. Importantly, across the content options available to consumers 25-54, news dominated viewing time throughout last year and was markedly higher than at the close of 2019.

As we saw throughout 2020, nothing sparks engagement with news like a major event. And Jan. 6, 2021, was no exception. Yet despite the level of national attention surrounding the protests and riots in Washington, D.C., broadcast news programming largely overshadowed cable news viewing. This speaks to the fact that consumers are less likely to look to cable news when events are unfolding in specific metropolitan areas of the U.S.

Beyond the rise in daytime TV viewing that has occurred due to COVID-19, the events of Jan. 6, 2021, prompted widespread ratings spikes across broadcast and cable networks throughout the day. That said, the timeline of viewing looked more traditional in nature, as the ratings were at their highest in the early evening, which is reminiscent of consumers’ pre-COVID-19 schedules. The same was true on the day before, albeit at lower rating levels. So even though so much has changed over the past year, the evening still reigns supreme for catching up with the events of the day—even when the day’s events are out of the ordinary and attract global attention.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway is the significance of local news broadcasts in the markets where news events happen. For consumers in Washington, D.C., local broadcast news served as a key information resource about what was happening directly in that market, as local ratings were 43% higher on Jan. 6 compared with Jan. 5, which was notably higher than the 30% jump that national broadcast news experienced.

The world has much hope that 2021 will be a time to heal and rebuild following a pandemic-ridden 2020, yet indications are high that unrest, challenge and uncertainty loom large. Through that lens, local news remains a critical source of information for consumers everywhere, and their viewing behaviors suggest that it’s often a top choice despite the many other options to them.

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