Americans watching more TV during COVID-19

Nielsen reported in 2018 that Americans consume on average over 11 hours of media a day, with over four hours a day of television viewing. Several sources suggest people are watching more TV than ever during COVID-19.

From Comcast:

The average household is putting in an extra workday’s worth of viewing each week – watching 8+ hours more per week than they were in early March, going from approximately 57 hours a week per household to 66 hours…

Since the start of COVID, these distinctions have blurred and weekdays are seeing viewing levels and trends akin to the weekend. As a matter of fact, in the past two weeks, Monday has become a more popular day to watch television than Saturday.

From the Washington Post:

Explosive demand for TV content led almost 16 million people to sign up for Netflix — more than double what the company predicted before the Covid-19 outbreak. The extended time at home also has been a chance for consumers to take new apps out for a spin, including Disney+, Apple TV+, Quibi and Comcast Corp.’s Peacock. Disney+ has added 28 million subscribers since December. Meanwhile, as the recession causes consumers to tighten their budgets, pricey cable-TV bills will be on the chopping block. Already last quarter, the big four pay-TV providers saw an exodus of nearly 2 million customers, with AT&T Inc.’s DirecTV accounting for almost half of those cancellations.

The desire to save money is boosting interest in free streaming-video services, such as Pluto TV and Tubi, that are funded by advertisers. Pluto TV’s growth proved to be the biggest bright spot in ViacomCBS Inc.’s quarterly results, as the cancellation of the NCAA March Madness tournament crushed traditional network ad sales

From the Denver Post:

Ever since city and state stay-at-home orders abruptly arrived with social distancing in mid-March, Denverites’ TV-viewing plus internet-connected device TV usage (as Nielsen calls it) has jumped up to 20% over comparable periods in the previous weeks.

Local TV stations also have become many viewers’ go-to source for information about the coronavirus and COVID-19,  reversing a trend that saw sharp declines in local news viewership in recent years. In the top 25 markets, local news experienced a 7% viewership lift between early February and the week of March 9. Among people 25-54, the spike was more than 10%, and 20% for people aged 2-17, Nielsen reported.

In total, the biggest weekly viewing increase across the country — when compared with the same period last year — occurred the week of April 6, Nielsen data showed.

Several thoughts on this:

  1. This all makes sense: people are home more and television is one of the top non-work activities for Americans. Even in the age of Internet, social media, and smartphones, television is a force to be reckoned with.
  2. This adds up to a lot of television on a daily and cumulative basis. For those worried about its effects, when people have more time, they still turn to television.
  3. This is not necessarily all good news for television networks and content creators. Advertising revenues are tough to find and cord-cutting, connected to unemployment and economic uncertainty, is up.
  4. It will be interesting to see what happens with long-term viewing patterns. COVID-19 restrictions could last a while in some places and fear about going out in public could continue even longer. Does this mean TV viewing will be up for a while? If so, is there a way for content creators, advertisers, and others to capitalize on the opportunities? Or, imagine a public campaign that pushes other activities beyond sitting in front of a television or smartphone screen (unlikely, I admit)?

Argument: “the real civic religion of America, business at all costs”

Which values should guide decisions in a time of crisis? Here is one argument regarding how decisions are made in the United States:

These approaches are the horns of America’s corona-dilemma. Every society has reacted to COVID-19 according to its principles or, if no principles were to hand, its habits. It has been America’s misfortune that its principles and habits are ill-suited to managing an epidemic. The federal system, by functioning as it should, prevented the kind of nationwide shutdown that worked in smaller countries like Austria. The real civic religion of America, business at all costs, can accept the redirection of the economy by the Defense Production Act, but it cannot tolerate the suspension of all economic activity. Yet a powerful counter-impulse — averse to risk, trusting of authority, and hence likely to seek out niches in the economy which are immune to booms and busts — prefers to shelter in place.

It is hard to make sweeping claims about cultural values in the midst of significant social change. At the same time, understanding “patterns of meaning-making” (the definition of culture from sociologist Lyn Spillman) is invaluable for analyzing why certain actors respond as they do in such times.

This reminds me of two sociological works that get at the same issue:

1. Emerson and Smiley’s 2018 book Market Cities, People Cities examined cities around the United States and the world to see if they put markets or people first. On the whole, American cities privilege markets with their policies and rhetoric. In American communities, growth – usually measured as economic growth and/or population increases, is always good. (See an earlier post on this book here.)

2. Dobbin’s 1994 book Forging Industrial Policy suggests in the early decades of the railroad the United States pursued a public-private policy regarding develpoment compared to the laissez-faire approach of Britain and the top-down, centralized approach of France. Yet, in the last few decades, a growing chorus of voices argues the United States privileges the interests of corporations over the welfare of all residents.

There could be other contenders for the civic religion of Americans including individualism, the civil religion described by sociologist Robert Bellah, middle-class values, and the importance of private property and private spaces. But, in this particular situation, what exactly should be done regarding businesses and the economy is a particular hot point.

Reminder: do not get carried away making fancy charts and graphs

The Brewster Rockit: Space Guy! comic strip from last Sunday makes an important point about designing charts and graphs: don’t get carried away.

https://www.gocomics.com/brewsterrockit/2020/05/03

Brewster Rockit May 3, 2020

The goal of using a chart or graph is to distill the information behind it into an easy-to-read format for making a quick point. A reader’s eye is drawn to a chart or graph and it should be easy to figure out the point the graphic is making.

If the graph or chart is too complicated, it loses its potency. If it looks great or clever but cannot help the reader interpret the data correctly, it is not very useful. If the researcher spends a lot of time tweaking the graphic to really make it eye-popping, it may not be worth it compared to simply getting the point across.

In sum: graphs and charts can be fun. They can break up long text and data tables. They can focus attention on an important data point or relationship. At the same time, they can get too complicated and become a time suck both for the producer of the graphic and those trying to figure them out.

Changed suburban spending because of COVID-19, Naperville edition

While most public attention with COVID-19 has focused on big cities and countries, numerous suburbs will deal with the effects of the pandemic as well. Here is how Naperville, a large and well-off suburb, is planning to tackle a budget gap:

The city of Naperville is shaving nearly $25 million off its 2020 budget in the wake of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic…

City Manager Doug Krieger said some of the projects were selected to be postponed because they’re considered “nice-to-haves” and aren’t expected to cost significantly more to be completed in future years. One major project, a $2.6 million plan to improve downtown streetscapes, was included on the list for deferment because “the downtown merchants did not want to proceed” with it in light of the pandemic, he said.

The moves will help the city offset anticipated declines in revenue sources — such as sales tax, food and beverage tax and motor fuel tax — as residents and businesses continue to follow the stay-at-home order…

Other work that will not take place this year includes $9 million in water meter-reading technology upgrades, a $7 million road widening project on North Aurora Road and $1.1 million of work toward a park at 430 S. Washington St. to be built in conjunction with North Central College, as well as smaller projects such as LED lighting conversion, tree planting, electric vehicle charging stations, flooring replacements and conference room IT and electric upgrades.

Suburbs and other municipalities can generate tax revenue through several sources (as noted above). Property taxes are affected by property values, which appear at this point appear to be holding firm during COVID-19. Sales taxes are generated by local businesses; this will certainly be down in communities (though the decline of retailers was already an issue). Food and beverage taxes will be down. And the number of people buying gasoline – feeding into the motor fuel tax – is down (and projections for the state’s funding through this suggest a big dip). In Illinois, we are near a third month of reduced business and social activity and this will make a big dent in municipal finances.

At the same time, based on the descriptions here, it sounds like an average resident of Naperville would not even notice that these improvements are not addressed this year. Of course, it could create a backlog for future years – pushing projects down the road means other planned projects might be delayed later – but the focus is on helping to address the current issues.

Naperville may be an unusual case compared to many other suburbs. It is a big community with a lot of successful businesses. The local government prides itself on being well-run and stable. It is not clear how long Naperville could continue to work through budget shortfalls but it is likely better prepared for this than many places.

This means that many municipalities could be facing tough questions in the months ahead about local projects and local funding. If the federal government and states are struggling with missed revenues, this will certainly affect municipalities who have to address local budget issues.

Housing prices up during COVID-19

During COVID-19, few people are looking for homes – and even fewer are selling:

The median home price rose 8% year-over-year to $280,600 in March, according to the National Association of Realtors. While buyer demand has softened and sales fell 8.5% that month from the prior month, the supply of homes on the market is contracting even faster, recent preliminary data shows…

What’s more, many sellers have been reluctant to cut prices. Only about 4% of sellers cut their prices in the week ended April 25, down from 5.7% during the same week last year, according to Realtor.com. ( News Corp, parent of The Wall Street Journal, operates Realtor.com.)…

Total listings of homes for sale, meanwhile, have hit a five-year low, while the median listing price was up 1% from last year at $308,000, Redfin said.

The housing market has been undersupplied for years. During the pandemic it may get worse. There were 1.5 million units for sale at the end of March, NAR said, down 10.2% from a year earlier. Homeowners are waiting to list their houses, real-estate agents say, because they have decided not to move or they are worried about letting buyers into their homes during a pandemic.

It will be interesting to see how long this holds up given the rapid spike in unemployment. How many people will be in a position to buy or sell in the coming months? And how long will it take for housing markets to return back to pre-Covid levels of activity?

Beyond prices, which matter to many homeowners who want to do everything they can to keep property values going up, there are additional big issues at play. One is noted above: a lack of housing supply long-term, particularly in certain markets and in certain segments. Another is the possible effects on the mortgage industry. A third is what this does to the idea of housing when there have been two  major shocks to housing in the last fifteen years. A fourth is whether people decide they want to live in certain locations more because of health risks. Like other sectors of society, COVID-19 may expose or hasten problems with existing issues.

In other words, stay tuned.

The difficulties for public institutions and spaces after COVID-19

Reopening and repopulating public spaces during and after COVID-19 might provide difficult:

Yet can you reopen a society — particularly a republic built on openness and public interaction — without its physical institutions at full capacity, without public spaces available for congregation?…

Something else unites these places. In each, the woman on the next bench, the man ahead in the checkout line, the family down the pew are suddenly potential vectors — or potential victims. So we’re assessing the public realm in the way we assess a salad bar when we walk into a restaurant…

“Democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world,” John R. Parkinson writes in “Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance.”

“How do you define the ‘public realm’ when an enormous percentage of the American public spends the majority of its day in its pajamas?” Stilgoe says.

This piece raises great questions for a COVID-19 world. The emphasis on how architecture and design shapes public behavior as well as how others in those spaces can be trusted or not is right on. At the same time, there are several elements I would add to this analysis:

1. The definitions of “institution” and “spaces” are pretty broad. Some of the listed locations, like shopping malls, colleges, and grocery stores, are not public spaces. They are owned by private groups that can and do dictate how the space can be used. Some of the other locations, like parks and squares, are public spaces. Government buildings are generally more open to all. Americans privilege private space even though we need some of the private spaces – grocery stores, workplaces – to survive. But, the same rules or expectations do not apply in each of these spaces. We saw this in the Occupy Wall Street protests where gatherings in what looked like public spaces could be ended when they spaces were actually owned by private groups or the government pushed people out. We actually do not have that many public spaces where people regularly gather; many of our “public spaces” are actually privately owned and this matters. The private public spaces require both private groups and the public to cooperate – and they may not always do so.

2. Even before COVID-19, it is not clear that many Americans value public spaces or use them regularly. As noted in #1, Americans like their private spaces. Homes may be less attractive when you are trapped in them but we have a society where success is owning your own suburban single-family home. Add to this declining trust in numerous institutions and it may be hard to make the case that we should put more resources and effort into creating and maintaining public spaces.

3. More broadly, many would argue a thriving society and democracy depends on regular interaction between people. And face-to-face interaction provides benefits that online communication does not regarding communicating clearly and building relationships. Yet, again, this has been on a decline for a while now. Twitter is not a good approximation of public conversation nor a good medium (at least as currently constructed or experienced) for public conversation. Telecommuting may provide efficiencies and allow people more private lives but something will be lost. See my earlier thoughts on sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People where he takes up these issues (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four).

From outlier to outlier in unemployment data

With the responses to COVID-19, unemployment is expected to approach or hit a record high among recorded data:

April’s employment report, to be released Friday, will almost certainly show that the coronavirus pandemic inflicted the largest one-month blow to the U.S. labor market on record.

Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal forecast the new report will show that unemployment rose to 16.1% in April and that employers shed 22 million nonfarm payroll jobs—the equivalent of eliminating every job created in the past decade.

The losses in jobs would produce the highest unemployment rate since records began in 1948, eclipsing the 10.8% rate touched in late 1982 at the end of the double-dip recession early in President Reagan’s first term. The monthly number of jobs lost would be the biggest in records going back to 1939—far steeper than the 1.96 million jobs eliminated in September 1945, at the end of World War II.

But, also noteworthy is what these rapid changes follow:

Combined with the rise in unemployment and the loss of jobs in March, the new figures will underscore the labor market’s sharp reversal since February, when joblessness was at a half-century low of 3.5% and the country notched a record 113 straight months of job creation.

In other words, the United States has experienced both a record low in unemployment and a record high within three months. A few thoughts connected to this:

1. Either outlier is noteworthy; having them occur so close to each other is more unusual.

2. Their close occurrence makes it more difficult to ascertain what is “normal” unemployment for this period of history. The fallout of COVID-19 is unusual. But the 3.5% unemployment can also be considered unusual compared to historical data.

3. Given these two outliers, it might be relatively easy to dismiss either as aberrations. Yet, while people are living through the situations and the fallout, they cannot simply be dismissed. If unemployment now is around 16%, this requires attention even if historically this is a very unusual period.

4. With these two outliers, predicting the future regarding unemployment (and other social measures) is very difficult. Will the economy quickly restart in the United States and around the world? Will COVID-19 be largely under control within a few months or will there be new outbreaks for a longer period of time (and will governments and people react in the same ways)?

In sum, dealing with extreme data – outliers – is a difficult task for everyone.