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Nielsen explains how COVID-19 could impact media usage across the US

Sarah Perez

With U.S. consumers asked to refrain from social gatherings and shelter-in-place at home due to COVID-19, media consumption is prepared to boom. Based on Nielsen data from prior major crises in recent U.S. history that forced consumers to stay home, total TV usage increased by nearly 60%. We're not there yet, but consumption is starting to climb in the most impacted markets, the firm found.

For example, Nielsen saw a 22% increase in total TV usage in the Seattle/Tacoma metro last Wednesday, compared with a week ago. New York and LA are already seeing usage that's up by 8% during the same time. And for some demographics, usage is much higher.

Seattle teens home from school notched a 104% increase over this period, Nielsen found.

Total TV usage, to be clear, includes watching traditional live TV, DVR recordings, video-on-demand and streaming services or other content through any TV set, game console or connected device.

But there's potential for TV usage to grow even further.

During a crisis, TV viewing booms as consumers ramp up media consumption to stay informed as well as to kill time.

Nielsen is not officially forecasting the COVID-19 pandemic will increase TV viewing to levels associated with historical crises. But it does note that U.S. consumers have traditionally turned to the TV during troubling times.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017, for instance, Nielsen's analysis found a 56% increase in total TV usage during the impacted period compared with the preceding period. And during the severe snowstorm that hit New York on the weekend of January 23, 2016, total TV usage was 45% higher during the Saturday of the snow event compared with the Saturday before.

These, of course, were isolated events of a limited duration. The COVID-19 crisis is different because it doesn't just affect one region, nor will it be over within a few days or weeks.

During these events, Nielsen said consumers stuck at home were tuning into feature films, news and general programming.

Streaming, in particular, jumped by 61% during these periods.

The larger impact from COVID-19 could be from the newly remote U.S. workforce. Prior Nielsen data suggests that employees who work remotely Monday through Friday watch over three more hours per week of traditional TV, compared with non-remote workers, at 25 hours and 2 minutes versus 21 hours and 56 minutes, respectively.

These changes to media consumption related to the COVID-19 crisis come at a time when the U.S. is already at a historical high for media consumption. Before the pandemic, U.S. consumers were already just shy of 12 hours each day with media platforms, and three-fourths of U.S. consumers are broadening their media options with streaming subscriptions and TV-connected devices.

Trends elsewhere in the world indicate COVID-19 will send users to stream even more.

In Italy and Spain, for example, first-time installs of Netflix's app were up 57% and 34%, respectively, according to Sensor Tower data.

In addition, live streaming across YouTube, Twitch, Facebook and Mixer grew by more than 66% in Italy between the first week of February and this past week, according to StreamElements, and viewers were watching nearly double the number of channels.

But brands looking to capitalize on the stuck-at-home audience may not find that their messages resonate or produce the actions they desire. That's because brands are looking to increase sales for products and services, and many consumers won't now risk leaving their home to spend.