Media Landscape - USA - Free-to-air TV
by Peter Scrimgeour
Senior Analyst Peter Scrimgeour takes a detailed look at the free-to-air TV market in the USA. This a sample of the full Media Landscape for USA available to subscribers.
5th March 2020, 12:27

The United States (US) television market comprised of 118.8 million television households in 2019, representing a household penetration of 92.5 per cent.

The past decade has seen the US television landscape enter a period of intense change. New digital services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are luring viewers and subscribers from traditional broadcast (over-the-air) and cable television networks.

The phenomenon of viewers dropping cable and satellite television subscriptions and switching to cheaper streaming services has been termed “cord cutting.” Additionally, there is also a growing number of “cord-nevers,” those that have decided to skip pay-TV altogether.

This has resulted in the television household penetration falling from 95.4 per cent in 2014 to 92.5 per cent in 2019. The ongoing trend of cord-cutting and cord-nevers will continue throughout the forecast period, with television household penetration falling to 88.7 per cent by year end 2024.

Television household penetration, 2015-2024 (percentage of households)


Source: GlobalData

The new digital services have led to a change in viewing habits, especially amongst younger viewers who continue to abandon broadcast ad-supported television for the world of streaming.

This has seen a fall in audiences for the traditional big four broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox – over the past half-decade.

However, the broadcast networks still lead, with CBS being the country’s most-watched network of 2019. Though, Fox ended 2019 as the only major broadcast network experiencing growth in total viewers, up 5 per cent from 2018.

Top four most watched networks, 2014-2019 (by total viewers, millions)


Source: Nielsen

The increasingly competitive media landscape has seen a number of mergers and acquisitions in the past decade.

In 2011, Comcast, the largest US cable company, completed its takeover of NBCUniversal, the owner and operator of the NBC television network, creating a $30 billion media behemoth.

In 2019, Walt Disney, the US media and entertainment giant and owner of the ABC television network, purchased most of 21st Century Fox, including film and television studios, for $71 billion.

Disney’s acquisition saw the Fox television network and stations, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network and its sports channels FS1, FS2, and the Big Ten Network separate and form a new company called Fox Corp. The newly spun-off media company is expected to bring in around $10 billion in annual revenue.

The end of 2019 saw CBS Corp., owner of the CBS television network, and Viacom, comprising Viacom Media Networks (e.g. MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon) and Paramount Pictures, completing their merger. The combined entity is to be known as ViacomCBS, and is estimated to generate about $28 billion in annual revenue.

Additionally, in 2018, AT&T, the US wireless and satellite company, closed an $85 billion deal to acquire media company Time Warner, whose brands include HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN, Cartoon Network and Warner Bros.

As a result, these major media conglomerates, which own the traditional TV networks and leading cable networks, are bulking up their direct-to-consumer digital offerings to compete directly with three of the largest tech-turned-media companies (Netflix, Amazon and Apple) and regain lost viewers.

Disney launched its direct-to-consumer streaming video service Disney+, which includes shows made by ABC, in November 2019.

NBCUniversal is set to launch its direct-to-consumer streaming service, aptly named Peacock after NBC's iconic logo, in July 2020.

Newly merged ViacomCBS is reportedly working on combining media assets for a new streaming service. ViacomCBS’ existing streaming services include CBS All Access and Showtime, which combined have more than 10 million paying subscribers, as well as free-streamer Pluto TV.

Furthermore, Fox Corp. is reportedly in discussions about acquiring Tubi, the ad-supported free streaming service, to provide a streaming component for the television broadcasting and cable company and capture the surge in internet-video viewing.

One area that traditional broadcasters are heavily invested in is live sports, and in particular, the NFL. With the fragmentation of audiences, sport still draws a mass audience and is strategically important to the livelihood of broadcast networks. The NFL’s Super Bowl is historically the most-watched television event of the year in the US.

In 2019, the NFL completely dominated television, accounting for seven of the top 10 most-watched broadcasts, 41 of the top 50, and 73 of the top 100. And unsurprisingly, Super Bowl LIII was the country's most-watched broadcast with an average audience of 98.2 million. The league's television viewership for the 2019 season was up roughly 5 per cent on the previous year, with broadcast partners, CBS, NBC, Fox and cable network ESPN, all benefiting from ratings increases.

The most watched broadcasts for selected sports, 2019 (by average audience, millions)

¹ Nielsen preliminary ratings (L+SD) for linear television viewership
Source: Nielsen

Television network CBS, part of ViacomCBS, was the most-watched network in 2019 with 7.14 million average viewers throughout the year.

CBS All Access and Showtime are ViacomCBS’ main direct-to-consumer subscription streaming services.

Sports rights acquired by CBS include the NFL (2014-15 to 2022-23), NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship (2011 to 2024, 2025 to 2032), PGA Tour (2013 to 2021), PGA Championship (2020 to 2030) and the Uefa Champions League (2021-22 to 2023-24).

CBS recorded the largest audience of 2019 with its telecast of Super Bowl LIII between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots, which drew an average television audience of about 98.2 million viewers.

The NFL's current rights agreement sees CBS broadcast the Super Bowl in 2016, 2019 and 2021.

NBC, owned and operated by NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast, was the second most-watched network in 2019 with 6.33 million average viewers throughout the year.

NBCUniversal will launch its new streaming service Peacock in July 2020. Peacock will seek to distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded online video market by offering a completely free, ad-supported service, as well as Peacock Premium, which will include live sports.

Sports rights held by NBC include the Olympic Games (2014 to 2020, 2022 to 2032), NFL (2014-15 to 2022-23), NHL (2012-13 to 2021-22), USA Track & Field (2017 to 2024), English Premier League (2016-17 to 2021-22), Nascar (2015 to 2024), Roland-Garros (2014 to 2024), PGA Tour (2007 to 2021), Ryder Cup (2015 to 2030), horse racing's Triple Crown: Kentucky Derby, (2016 to 2025), Preakness Stakes (2016+) and Belmont Stakes (2016 to 2020), as well as the Breeders' Cup (2016 to 2025).

The NFL's current rights agreement sees NBC broadcast the Super Bowl in 2015, 2018 and 2022.

The ABC television network, part of Walt Disney along with cable network ESPN, was the third most-watched network in 2019 with 5.19 million average viewers throughout the year.

Disney operates the Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ direct-to-consumer streaming services.

Sports rights secured by ABC include NBA (2016-17 to 2024-25), XFL (2020+), Big 12 Conference (2012 to 2025), Uefa European Championship (2020), Wimbledon (2012 to 2023) and FIA Formula 1 World Championship (2020 to 2022).

The Fox broadcast network, part of the new Fox Corp., was the fourth most-watched network in 2019 with 4.62 million average viewers throughout the year. Fox was only major broadcast network to post year-over-year ratings growth from 2018 to 2019.

Sports rights held by Fox include the NFL (2014-15 to 2022-23), NFL’s Thursday Night Football (2018-19 to 2021-22), XFL (2020+), MLB (2014 to 2021, 2022 to 2028), Fifa World Cup (2022, 2026), Fifa Women’s World Cup (2023), Concacaf Gold Cup (2021, 2023), Concacaf Champions League (2020, 2022), MLS (2015 to 2022), Nascar (2015 to 2024) and Big Ten Conference (2012 to 2032).

Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIV featuring San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, drew an average television audience of about 99.9 million viewers, and most likely, will be the largest audience of 2020.

The NFL's current rights agreement sees Fox broadcast the Super Bowl in 2017, 2020 and 2023.

The most watched networks, 2019 (by total viewers, millions)

Source: Nielsen