Updated Nov 27, 2021 - Technology

America's attention recession

Illustration of a woman looking out a window with open curtains build into a computer screen
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New data shows that there's been a pullback from the historically high levels of media audience growth — and in some cases consumption — during 2020, pointing to signs of a slight "attention recession" in the past few months.

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic drove a once-in-a-lifetime surge in the attention economy online, but the gradual return of normal life in many places — along with media overload and exhaustion — has down-shifted consumption patterns.

Why it matters: "We're returning to more normal growth levels compared to the pandemic," says Ian Olgeirson, a research director at Kagan, the media research unit of S&P Global. "For 2022, we expect growth to tail off even more so than it has already in 2021," in some sectors.

Details: The retreat from at-home activities has negatively impacted the growth of several media industries on a year-over-year basis.

  • Broadband: A new report from Kagan shows that broadband subscriber growth "cooled significantly in the third quarter," stalling in growth for the first time in three years. The decline can be attributed to "a difficult comparison with the booming gains of 2020," the report notes.
  • Subscription streaming: Subscription streaming subscriber growth slowed last quarter for most of the major streaming services. "Churn is a challenge as consumers get back to a new normal routine," said Andrew Hare, SVP of research for global media & entertainment at media research firm Magid.
  • News: News consumption has plummeted, according to data from SimilarWeb. There's been a 12.4% decrease in readership across the top 10 most visited news sites between October 2020 and October 2021.

Yes, but: This year is still performing better than 2019 in terms of news engagement, per SimilarWeb.

  • And despite slowed levels of subscriber growth, household broadband and streaming usage is still higher than 2019.

The bottom line: "I don't think media consumption will go back down to pre-COVID levels," said Seema Shah, senior director of research and analytics, experience at SimilarWeb.

  • While we've hit a point of saturation for growth across many subscription sectors, analysts say there's much more room for growth in the U.S. for free, ad-supported streaming.

What to watch: Some of the supply chain issues related to the pandemic will continue to contribute to slowed media growth for the next few months.

  • Roku, for example, warned on its latest earnings call that the slowdown in its active account growth rate last quarter was, in large part, "attributable to global supply chain disruptions that have impacted the U.S. TV market."
  • Kagan's latest industry outlook report similarly warns that a shortage of semiconductors "will impact the flow of devices and constrict headroom for growth" for some media sectors.
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