With Live Sports Still Sidelined, May’s National TV Ad Revenue Fell 23%

Nine of 12 product categories saw year-over-year declines

A photo of Michael Jordan from The Last Dance
ESPN was able to generate some ad dollars from The Last Dance, but could not compensate for the loss of its other major league sports in May. ESPN
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Key insight:

May’s national TV ad revenue improved on March and April’s low numbers, but the absence of sports programming amid Covid-19 continued to deal a serious blow to the industry, according to the Standard Media Index AccTV Report for May 2020.

National TV ad revenue in May fell 23% year over year to an average of $716.4 million each week, with cable TV dropping 24% to $446.6 million weekly and broadcast revenue plummeting 23.9%, to $234.9 million each week. National syndication TV was up 2.6% compared to last May, with $34.9 million weekly in ad revenue.

This was actually a slight improvement on the numbers from March—which averaged $721.6 million in national ad revenue each week, down 17% from 2019—and April ($659.1 million weekly, a 30% drop), according to SMI, which tracks 70% of national ad spending from global and independent agencies.

A big reason for the drop was the dearth of live sports programming, which in May would normally include the NBA and NHL playoffs, MLB and MLS regular season games and two Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Without those events, May national ad revenue for sports plummeted 66.1%, to $52.8 million weekly. With sports programming removed, the May national ad revenue would have been off 15%, instead of 23%.

TNT and ESPN, which televise the NBA playoffs, saw the biggest year-over-year drops among all major cable networks: TNT’s May ad revenue fell 70.4%, while ESPN dropped 58.7%. ESPN was able to generate some ad dollars from airing The Last Dance docuseries, but could not compensate for the loss of its other major league sports.

As the MLB and NBA set their return for late July, TV is eagerly awaiting the ad revenue influx from those leagues.

“Although in May the national TV ad marketplace is still in the doldrums, there have been some encouraging signs ad dollars will return in the second half of the year, especially with the anticipated return of live sports. We have high hopes for a quick recovery,” said SMI CEO James Fennessy in a statement.

For the broadcast season from September to May, national TV ad revenue dropped 11.4% season over season, the SMI found.

Among entertainment programming, national ad revenue for broadcast was down 24%, while cable fell 16.1%. In primetime entertainment broadcast revenue, all five English-language broadcasters dropped more than 20%, but Univision actually had a 12.6% increase in ad revenue.

Discovery Inc.’s focus on food and home programming are giving the company a ratings edge during the pandemic, but its ad revenue is still falling. HGTV saw 8% primetime audience increase year over year, while ad revenue was down 15.8%; Food Network grew its audience 9% but still saw a 12.6% drop in ad revenue.

A&E fared better: Its audience was up 2% year over year and ad revenue was down by just 0.7%, but the network will see a much steeper decline in June following the cancellation of Live PD, its signature show and one of cable’s top rated series.

News programming, meanwhile, saw a hefty national TV ad revenue increase in May, up 9.7% to $103.9 million weekly—double the sports earnings for the same month. That was mostly due to cable news ad revenue, which grew a whopping 21.4%, compared to broadcast news’ 1.1% increase. Fox News saw a 28.8% ad revenue bump, while CNN was up 26.7%.

SMI found that nine of 12 product categories saw a year-over-year decline in ad spending. Travel plummeted 95% compared to May 2019, followed by automotive, which dropped 43%. Other big category drops included restaurant (which fell 32%), retail (a 29% decline) and entertainment/media (a 28% fall).

Other categories saw more moderate ad spend declines: appear and accessories fell 18%, CPG was off 9%, tech dropped 7% and pharmaceuticals also fell 7%.

Three categories, however, saw year over year gains: wellness was up 13%, financial services increased 7% and general business was also up 7%.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.