The Great Migration: How TV Audiences are Changing TV Economics

From Leslie Cohen, Director of Client Development at Branded Entertainment Network

CBS’s recent announcement that it is adopting broader sales metrics is emblematic of a significant trend among TV networks that encourages advertisers to move away from narrower audience-based guarantees. Audience guarantees have traditionally been based on either 18-49 and/or 25-54 demographics, and networks are moving towards broader, impression-based metrics such as 18+ and 25+. As traditional ad-supported TV has historically been considered a broad reach play for advertisers, a shift in deal guarantees to an even a wider audience wouldn’t seem that noteworthy. However, the reasons behind this shift and what it says about the changing dynamics of linear TV speaks to larger changes in primetime entertainment consumption.

The most important and basic shift the TV advertising business is facing is that 18-49 is no longer the audience watching traditional ad-supported primetime TV.  The primetime audience, which is what the networks rely on for writing large upfront commitments and use to support scatter spend, has moved elsewhere. As a result, in each passing year, the networks’ 18-49 audiences are getting smaller and smaller. This fact has created an unsustainable cycle in which the networks continue to carry large under-delivery, year over year. Price increases are one solution for the networks to make up this deficit but that alone won’t help fight a continued trend of shrinking audiences and under-delivery. Encouraging advertisers to count all 18+ or 25+ viewers, versus traditional age break guarantees, is another.

Where has the primetime TV audience gone? Largely to ad-free streaming TV. According to Ampere Analysis, there are now nearly 340 million subscription contracts to OTT streaming services in the U.S., exceeding the country’s 330 million population. And Transunion reports that 71% of U.S. consumers have increased their use of paid streaming services since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, up from 56% of consumers reporting increased usage in May 2020.

It isn’t just the migration of younger audiences that are forcing the networks to shift to broader 18+ and 25+ metrics. While only about 34% of Americans aged 18 to 29 now get TV through cable or satellite – down 31 percentage points from 2015 according to Pew Research Center – fewer than half (46%) of those aged 30 to 49 currently get TV that way, down 27 points.

The TV advertising industry is a legacy business where changes tend to happen slowly. The move towards broader demographic guarantees is a change that is reflective of how the business is adapting to the move away from traditional viewership.  Many marketers have turned to product placement as another means to adapt, helping them effectively reach non-ad supported audiences. Advances in measurement have given these marketers the data they need to shift dollars from network TV budgets into streaming product placement investments. This has allowed them to supplement TV ad spend with content that is reaching 18-49 audiences. As primetime viewership on subscription platforms and streaming TV continues to increase, the sales metric changes being made by the networks today feels more like a first step than a final one.


Leslie Cohen is Director of Client Development at Branded Entertainment Network. She is focused on developing brand partnerships in TV, Film and Music content across non-ad supported and ad-supported platforms. Leslie lives in NYC with her husband and two

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