Who needs a good laugh? These days, after crossing the one-year mark of living in a pandemic, who doesn’t?
Perhaps a sign that consumers are longing for the good times, they are literally watching shows like Good Times. It’s true, the growing abundance of media choices is helping people across the country find something to smile about when they want to turn away from the news and get that happy feeling again. And comedy programs are coming to the rescue.
While the comedy genre is always popular, comedy viewing* over the past year highlights a resurgence of nostalgia comedy programming, particularly shows featuring diverse leads and cast members. Family Matters, for example, which was produced between 1989 and 1998 and features an all-black cast, saw a massive spike in viewership across national TV last year. Specifically, people ages 2 and older watched almost 11.4 billion minutes of the program last year, almost 400% more than in 2019, when viewers watched just 2.3 billion minutes.
While many Americans gravitated to their funny old favorites in 2020, it wasn’t a blockbuster year for the comedy genre overall. In fact, comedy viewing was down 9% nationally compared with 2019. With much of our attention focused on COVID-19, racial injustice and the presidential election, the dip isn’t surprising. That said, our data makes it clear that when audiences needed a break from reality, they traveled back in time to tried-and-true picks like Friends, Family Matters, the Golden Girls and Two and a Half Men, which, combined, accounted for more than 234 billion viewing minutes throughout the year.
Even with the dip in minutes viewed, the 1.3 trillion minutes of viewed comedy programming across national television last year highlights a very important insight: Despite an array of licensing deals with streaming services, revered comedy programming is just as big of an asset for local and national TV programming as it is for streaming platforms. The Office, for example, which made streaming news late last year when it was announced that the show would jump to a different streaming platform, garnered strong viewership throughout 2020 across both traditional TV programming and Netflix.
The viewership of The Office across traditional TV and Netflix highlights both the massive appeal of the program and how varied consumers’ TV behaviors are. Importantly, viewership of the program across Netflix did not have a negative impact on linear viewing last year, as consumers watched 4% more minutes of the show in 2020 on traditional TV than they did in 2019.
The appeal of nostalgia comedy programming and its availability across multiple platforms bodes well for other streaming platforms as well, as the top three comedy titles of 2020 (Friends, The Big Bang Theory and Two-and-a-Half Men) are no longer solely available through traditional syndicated TV programming. Friends, for example, racked up almost 97 billion minutes of viewing across national TV last year, making it the most-viewed comedy show of 2020. And now that it’s available on HBO Max in the U.S. and Netflix in Canada, Australia and the U.K., total viewership in 2021 will grow the program’s audience much more broadly.
The high viewership of popular syndicated programs across platforms highlights a critical finding: making them available in more places actually increases total viewership. So in that way, broadcasters shouldn’t shy away from possible syndication deals simply because a program might also be available elsewhere. These additions, in turn, would then benefit advertisers as well.
It’s hard to imagine consumers not needing a good laugh these days, but regional data highlight that comedy viewing behaviors are far from analogous across markets. For example, the average person in Pittsburgh watched two hours and 25 minutes of comedy programming each week last year, which is dramatically higher than the 49 minutes viewers in Salt Lake City spent watching comedy shows each week. The difference is even more pronounced on an annual basis: 126 hours per person vs. 43.
Programming preferences are equally varied, with Friends, Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men ranking as the top three comedy programs across 42 designated market areas (DMAs). Meanwhile, unlike viewers across the rest of the U.S., viewers in Greensboro-H.Point-W.Salem and in Raleigh-Durham rank the Andy Griffith show as their favorite comedy.
In times of disruption and uncertainty, few would argue that the comedy genre is a welcomed diversion. Disruption makes viewers reach for the tried while uncertainty drives us toward the true. And generally speaking, good comedy is timeless, as evidenced by notable viewership spikes in programs as diverse as the Golden Girls, George Lopez, Full House and Hogan’s Heroes. After a year of isolation, with the road ahead brightening, but still unsure, as more nostalgic programs find their way to new platforms and channels, there’s little doubt that along with our hopes, viewership will continue to rise.
*Sourcing and Methodology
Comedy viewing as referenced in this analysis includes all programs falling under the Comedy Variety and Situation Comedy genres in NNTV (Nielsen National TV View) and NLTV (Local TV View). All telecasts airing across broadcast, cable and syndication were included for full-year 2019 and 2020. Viewing is based on Traditional PUT (live+time-shifting) on the TV set only. Any streaming or viewing via digital devices is excluded. Gross minutes viewed are calculated using total program duration across all airings and project viewing across the total population.