Movies Emerge as a Clear Winner Among TV Viewers During the Pandemic


Rebecca Fine
Associate Dir., Research & Media Insights
Jun 17, 2020

Over the past three months, as “stay home, stay safe” has become a prevailing societal mantra, viewers have unsurprisingly been flocking to screens of all shapes and sizes. In these pandemic viewing times, as lockdowns have worn on, we’ve seen a continual shift toward long-form content, with movies emerging as one of the few clear winners in linear TV. 

Viewers’ hunger for movies was evident early during lockdown in the swift and sudden success of direct-to-consumer movie releases, such as April’s Trolls World Tour. Samba TV data showed in its first weekend that the Trolls release had viewership from 1.01 million U.S. households. Also, according to the Wall Street Journal in the first three weeks the Trolls movie sequel racked up more money for Universal Pictures than the original did during five months in theaters. 

Other recent movie release examples include Scoob and King of Staten Island. Samba’s analysis showed that in Scoob’s first weekend there were 624,000 U.S. households that watched. The June 12th release for King of Staten Island had 351,000 households watch in its first weekend. Neither movie matched the success of Trolls primarily due to less pre-release marketing exposure, but they do demonstrate continued strength in the direct-to-home release model.

Beyond direct-to-home releases, networks such as ABC and CBS are finding success by providing recurring movie night programming. ABC is tapping into the Disney content catalog for its weekly Wednesday revival of the “Wonderful World of Disney” franchise. Its screening of Moana on May 20 saw tune-in of 2.15 million U.S. households, which is a significant outperformance of ABC programs airing in the same time slot for Wednesdays in February. Interestingly, 39.5% of the households tuning into Moana had children. That’s slightly above the 39% of U.S. households with children, suggesting that these movie nights are connecting beyond the typical families that want to entertain kids for a couple of hours. 

Meanwhile, CBS has played host to six Sunday movie nights in recent weeks, featuring classic movies from the last 40 years. Examples that scored higher household viewership ratings than ABC’s Moana include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (3.32M), Forrest Gump (3.3M), Raiders of the Lost Ark (3M), and Mission Impossible (2.4M). Similar to ABC, about 35% of the households watching recent CBS Sunday night movies have children.

This ties into a larger trend of movies emerging as the big winners in TV viewership at the moment. A recent Samba analysis found that movies across TV networks have consistently seen increased viewership throughout the pandemic. Consider the following full-day viewership growth figures between March and April:

Growth is also evident in primetime viewership across all networks: 

Even as linear watchers in general migrate to streaming and over-the-top viewing options, movies represent a rare spot of growth and continued strength. Networks will do well to continue to feed viewers’ desire for these long-form shared content experiences as the pandemic continues to bring families together around the biggest screens in their homes.

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