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TV's Scary Summer

TV ad sales were down last spring. Now ratings are disappearing.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

You still spend an astonishing amount of time watching TV. But you are watching less: TV ratings drooped last month, and have been doing so since April, when most of the networks stopped airing their new shows.

Even with a World Cup bump, broadcast ratings were down 3.7 percent, and cable was down 6.8 percent in July.

“Not pretty,” deadpans analyst MoffettNathanson’s Michael Nathanson. Here’s the primetime ratings breakdown by corporate ownership — note that “C3” means Nielsen is tracking people who watched the shows when they first aired, and up to three days later on DVRs:

Nielsen July ratings

What did you do instead of watching TV last month? It’s possible that you still watched TV, but not in ways that advertisers care about — if you DVR’d a show and watched it four days after it aired, for instance, that doesn’t do the networks any good right now. The same goes for video on demand.

But there’s a good chance you were doing something else. Netflix, for instance, streamed 6.5 billion hours of video in the first three months of the year. BTIG’s Rich Greenfield figures that means Netflix subs watched 103 minutes of streaming video a day, up from 83 minutes a year ago. Or maybe you’re one of Facebook’s 200 million U.S. users, who spend more than 40 minutes a day on the service. Or maybe you’re playing Game of War on your phone.

If you’re a TV executive looking for a silver lining, you could note that broadcast TV’s ratings fall is actually an improvement. Eyeballs were only down four percent, instead of the double-digit declines the networks had seen for the previous three months.

But if you’re a TV executive sitting at a bar, or alone at night with your thoughts, you might be awfully worried. You just had a lousy “upfront” sales season, and your bosses spent the last few weeks telling Wall Street that this was no big deal, because advertisers would show up in the fall and buy spots then.

But TV ad spending has already been slowing for some time. And now, if your eyeballs start disappearing …

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