Typically, the last week of September ushers in the new fall network television premieres, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated changes to that normalcy. Most television executives and show runners spent the majority of the summer planning for how to return to production safely. The paramount of safety for those producing content, though, is juxtaposed against the clamor for new content from audiences.
EARLY 2020 INSIGHTS and CHANGES
- Early in the pandemic related quarantines, across the United States, broadcast television ratings saw “double-digit growth in March and April compared to the previous year” according to Nielsen. The ratings giant also found that the “minutes spent streaming compared to this time last year more than doubled” and Netflix added 16 million brand new subscribers during the first quarter of 2020. There is a drawback to that, however. With such prolific growth in the early portion of the pandemic, some experts wonder, ‘who will be left to subscribe in the fall’?
- An unaffected year typically sees new shows pitched in January and February and pilots filmed in March. The pandemic’s abrupt shutdowns in the spring effectively altered the standard avenue that producers followed to get their new shows seen by network executives.
THE FALL’S RETURNING SHOWS
- Fox’s animated comedies (like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers) have largely been unaffected by the pandemic shutdowns as they can still be produced while maintaining safe social distancing and during August and September some scripted comedies and dramas have resumed production with new safer protocols on set.
- ABC’s drama ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and its sister show, ‘Station 19’, have resumed production and are slated for a (two-month delayed) November 12 premiere. The medical and first responder driven dramas will feature COVID-19 story lines.
- ‘The Witcher’ (Netflix) resumed filming on August 17.
- ‘S.W.A.T.’ (starring Shemar Moore and aired on CBS) resumed filming in July.
- ‘The Connors’ (ABC) resumed production with a “minimal crew being used, and no live audience for episode tapings.”
- Tyler Perry has nicknamed his Atlanta production compound ‘camp quarantine’ and resumed production on shows, including ‘Sistas’ and ‘The Oval’ by implementing a “30-page safety document that he wrote, which outlined protocol to ensure his cast and crew would remain in good health.”
During the 2007-2008 writer’s strike, networks migrated some content from cable partners to their broadcast flagships. During that time, for example, “Showtime’s Dexter aired on CBS and USA’s Monk on NBC”.
- CBS has given indication that they will implement at least some of that same strategy in the fall of 2020 by announcing that ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ would air in broadcast’s prime time after previously only being available on its streaming service.
- ‘One Day at a Time’ (aired on Netflix for its first three seasons) will air the fourth season on CBS beginning this fall after having moved to PopTV.
- Via much the same method, CBS has also acquired the rights to the Spectrum owned (and previously filmed) and produced ‘Manhunt: Deadly Games’ which is now slated to air on the broadcast network this fall.
- Spectrum also sold its rights to ‘LA’s Finest’ to Fox for their fall lineup.
- Fox will air the previously aired on NatGeo series, ‘Cosmos: Possible Worlds’ during its fall broadcast schedule.
- The CW announced a postponed start to its fall lineup and decided to air acquired shows like ‘Coroner’, ‘Tell Me a Story’ and ‘Devils’.
RETURN OF THE GAME SHOW
Many networks have embraced the game show, once a staple of both daytime and nighttime television schedules. Not only were some previously produced summer shows held for the fall schedule but these types of shows can be produced with less interaction from audiences and safer conditions for crews.
- Jeopardy returned with a new “socially distant set”. New consulting producer, Ken Jennings, stated “The thing you’ll notice for COVID is that the individual contestant podiums — the lecterns — are now socially distanced. They’re feet apart from each other instead of being a single bank. And (Alex) Trebek will stay at the host’s podium, instead of coming over to the contestants because Alex’s health is priority No. 1 on that set.”
- ‘Wheel of Fortune’ resumed production with newly designed elements to increase safety. “The wheel has been upgraded and in addition to redesigning the platform surrounding the wheel to allow for six feet of space between host Pat Sajak and the contestants, the team also introduced a new curved monitor that surrounds the wheel.” Contestants will have their own ‘wheel cap’ to grip the wheel when spinning.
- Amid “frequent testing, hand-sanitizing stations, protective equipment and limited contact — all in compliance with suggestions issued by Hollywood’s unions, as well as state and local guidelines”, the 90s favorite ‘Supermarket Sweep’ will begin airing newly filmed episodes on ABC beginning October 18.
- ‘Card Sharks’ with Joel McHale is slated to return for a second season and is being produced “with minimal crew, without an audience, and producer Fremantle has put in rigorous health and safety protocols.”
- A second season of the rebooted ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ has resumed “shooting in Los Angeles with a minimal crew and without an audience”. The show is expected to premiere on October 18.
EMBRACING THE NEW NORMAL
Many television networks have embraced producing content that represents the new normal of life in a pandemic – complete with Zoom calls.
- In the spring, CBS aired a “one-hour special that featured viral home video moments created while social distancing and sheltering in place, and reflects the creativity, humor, and humanity that have emerged from our shared experiences over the past few months.” The network announced the special would be converted to a weekly entrant in the fall lineup called ‘The Greatest #StayAtHome Videos’.
- America’s Got Talent made changes mid-season which allowed for remote auditions, no live audiences, and results via video-call.
- When NASCAR returned to tracks, the reduced numbers of fans in the stands allowed for interesting new uses of technology. Lachlan Murdock, CEO at Fox, shared in an earnings call, “we brought NASCAR back using only 1/3 of the people we would normally have trackside. Our director and camera operators and audio were on site, while graphics, replays, producers and talent were spread out between Charlotte and Los Angeles. With very few or no fans on the track, it allowed us to break new ground with miniature drones flying overhead to get never before seen aerial footage. As the season progressed, even our in-car audio production and feature editing were produced live in technicians’ homes.”
- For the first few months of the pandemic, late-night talk shows, like the ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ and ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ produced content filmed in the hosts’ homes but most of these talk-shows have returned to in-studio production though with no live audiences and continued remote interviews.
- “Discovery, which owns networks like HGTV and the Food Network, said its seeing success with at-home content creation, like an episode of “The Kitchen: Quarantine Episode” on Food Network, which the company said drew nearly 3 million viewers, the most highly rated episode of the show ever.” This at-home created content allowed the network to air over “1,000 hours of fresh original content to our networks, since the world shutdown due to COVID.”
- NBC green lit a “straight-to-series order (for) a comedy about friends who use video chat to keep in touch with each other” called ‘Connecting’.
- Freeform issued a series order for ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ from Joanna Johnson (one of the creators of ‘The Fosters’)
Traditionally less expensive to produce, reality-based television has seen minimal change amidst the pandemic. Continuing to create content via this route is still far easier than returning to normal scripted production.
- Shows like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Love Island’ quarantined their contestants for weeks before production and all during filming.
- However, ‘Survivor’ will not air a new fall season on CBS for the first time in 20-years.
- “Ad revenue is down in part because all of the big spring and summer sporting events, where commercials cost a lot of money, those events are canceled.”
- Spring 2020 losses included an estimated “$400 million hit at WarnerMedia (and) an expected 50% decline in local ad revenues at Fox Corp.”
- ESPN, who relies heavily on live-sports programming, saw ad revenues that were “down 8% with no relief in sight, as live sports remain sidelined. All in all, the company reported $1.4 billion in lost profits in Q1 due to Covid-19.”
- “AT&T, saw advertising revenues fall 12.9%. Covid-19 had an estimated $900 million effect on revenues at WarnerMedia, mostly due to lower advertising from the cancellation of March Madness.”
- “WarnerMedia’s Turner division, which saw a 24.1% year-over-year quarterly decline (for first quarter) in advertising revenue.”
- Fox CEO, Lachlan Murdock, stated though audience viewing (in local news) is trending upward throughout the pandemic, networks struggle to find an effective way to monetize those audiences and “fiscal fourth quarter advertising revenues are pacing down around 50% from year-ago levels.”
- ViacomCBS saw a “30% year-over-year decline in its television entertainment segment, a loss of $586 million” in the early months of the pandemic.
- “In mid-April, a survey of publishers from the Interactive Advertising Bureau found near-unanimous agreement that ad sales revenue would be down this year, with 77% reporting canceling some campaigns for clients and 82% reporting pausing advertising for buyers.”
- Historically, in “late May, buyers begin to negotiate ad costs with network account executives in a process called the upfront marketplace. Advertisers buy upfront ad time for a 52-week period that begins in the fall.”
- The marketplace then enters negotiations and “upfront negotiations are usually completed by mid-summer, with billions of ad dollars negotiated. In 2019, the broadcast networks secured $10.2 billion for prime-time ads while cable TV booked another $11.7 billion.”
- Broadcast networks who air football (like NBC, Fox, and CBS) rely on the NFL “for more than 20% of their annual ad revenue.”
- Overall, ad revenue is falling across all channels, though Accenture surmises the television industry is seeing at least a 21% reduction.
- As productions begin to resume, the future outlook may not be a bleak as previously feared. Several media companies, including “ABC and ESPN parent Disney, Fox, AMC Networks, NBCUniversal parent Comcast, WarnerMedia parent AT&T, ViacomCBS and Discovery, along with tech companies The Trade Desk and Roku” reported losses in the second quarter but not as high as they had initially anticipated.
- NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell stated though the “advertising market was hit hard, it is coming back more rapidly than we anticipated.”
- The lack of upfront deals for the fall season has led to far more scatter deals where advertisers are buying airtime closer to a show’s airing.
- Outdoor advertising, like billboards, which have traditionally been used to promote fall television are less likely to be utilized at all this year based on the idea that fewer people are out and about.
- Additionally, crossover advertising in shopping malls, or in movie theaters are unavailable to network executives as they have been in the past.
- According to CW streaming president and chief branding officer Rick Haskins, the pandemic has forced television marketing to be accelerated to digital platforms. In fact, he states, “I think that if anyone is a winner in the pandemic, it’s TikTok. You have all of these young people who couldn’t do anything but quarantine, and TikTok provided them a safe haven. I think you’re going to see us doing new things on TikTok that we haven’t done before.” (Of note, “US kids ages 4-15 are spending an average of 95 minutes per day with TikTok since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to the 82 minutes spent with the app in February 2020.”)
- Statista data helps to illustrate the changing landscaping of advertising (including for television). “Before the coronavirus outbreak, in December 2019, the U.S. ad market was projected to grow by 4.4%, mostly owing to sales of advertising related to political and sport events planned for 2020. However, as of March 2020, revised forecasts indicate that most linear media will suffer declines in 2020. Print and radio ad revenues are expected to drop by 25.4% and 14.1%, respectively – the highest results among traditional media.”
- Local and regional advertisers may control a larger piece of the change to television advertising. “Regional and local advertising accounts for more than one-third (36%) of US ad spending, according to the report. Of the 150 marketers and agencies surveyed in mid-June who were budgeting for regional/local advertising in the second half of the year, an equal percentage said they would be using paid social (75%) and display (75%) for those efforts. Seven in 10 will also be using paid search, while almost two-thirds (64%) intend to invest in digital video. On the other hand, fewer regional advertisers plan to use traditional channels such as broadcast linear TV (46%), cable linear TV (46%) and terrestrial radio (38%).”
- Consumer sentiment on advertising seems to only be mildly changing. “Kantar surveyed 35,000 consumers globally about their views on brands advertising through the COVID-19 crisis. Only 8% thought brands should stop advertising. However, consumers do believe that it shouldn’t be business as usual for marketers and advertisers. 78% of consumers think brands should help them in their daily lives. 75% say that brands should inform people of what they’re doing, and 74% think companies should not exploit the situation.”
- Additionally, consumers may not continue to consume televised content in the same ways or volumes that they did pre-pandemic. “Looking ahead, many US adults say they will spend less time watching pay-TV programs (41%) after COVID-19.”
STREAMING SERVICES – AD vs NO ADS
Not all streaming services are alike, and not all survive on subscription fees alone.
- The powerhouse streaming service “Netflix has continued to grow in 2020 amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. Indeed, pandemic-related home confinement measures have helped to increase the company’s paid net membership additions by 274% in Q2 2020 compared to the same three-month period a year ago.” Netflix does not have any OTT advertising and revenue is generated seemingly from subscriptions and licensing deals.
- Disney+ has boosted their revenue by implementing add-on viewings to their SVOD service. In the wake of theater closings across the globe, Disney+ premiered its live-action remake of Mulan on its streaming service for $30 per viewing. This could, along with dire predictions in the movie theater industry, signal a change in the ways that audiences view new first-release movies and thus providing an entirely new revenue opportunity for streaming services.
- Hulu offers multiple subscription options as well as options that include live broadcasts. The subscription pricing levels dictate if the consumer sees OTT ads.
- Hybrid virtual multichannel video programming distributors (vMVPD), like Hulu and Sling, are poised to be on the cusp of a new advertising revolution for television. Unlike SVOD providers, like Netflix, these services are banking that “cable, satellite, and telco TV are on course to shed 8 million or more subscribers in 2020 and lose 40% of their customers in the next few years. If that comes true, there will be more homes without pay TV in the U.S. than with it.” Experts suggest that vMVPD providers should look to break apart their offerings to consumers and allow them to customize their plans as much as possible.
There are at least six streaming services that do offer OTT advertising as part of their platforms.
- “Tubi TV is a free, fully ad-supported, video-streaming service in the connected TV (CTV) marketplace. Streamers can watch quality video TV shows and movies without paying a subscription fee. With content from over 200 partners and studios like Paramount, Lionsgate, and MGM, Tubi TV enables users to stream thousands of hours of movies and TV shows free of charge on any device. More people adopt streaming every day, and Tubi is rumored to be spending around $100 million on licensed content in 2019 to meet the growing demand. Tubi TV is available on over 20 connected devices including Comcast Xfinity X1, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV.”
- “Pluto TV is a live-TV and on-demand streaming platform that offers free content curated from a mix of network and original content. It was recently acquired by Viacom and now has over 12 million active users, making it the largest free TV streaming service in the U.S. From TV shows and movies to sports, news, and music videos, Pluto TV has over 100 free HDTV channels for viewer entertainment categorized by genre.”
- “Sling TV is live TV, just like a cable or satellite TV service, except it’s delivered over the internet. It is a paid, ad-supported streaming service that allows subscribers to pick their bundled network options and watch a collection of live and on-demand TV channels on their TVs, computers, or mobile devices. It offers more than 50 channels, including ESPN, AMC, TNT, CNN, History, HGTV, and Disney Channel.”
- “Xumo is a streaming service that aggregates a high-quality video inventory from over 60 broadcasters and premium digital publishers. Xumo is free for viewers and supported by ads. Advertisers can access a high-quality, high-definition, full-screen ad inventory on smart TVs and connected devices.”
- “STIRR is a new free, ad-supported streaming service owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group that brings local TV news and content to streamers across the U.S. It is available through their website and apps for iOS, Android devices, and various streaming TV devices, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku.”
- “Sony Crackle is a completely free, ad-supported OTT platform owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment Company, and accessible from any connected device. The streaming service features live sports, breaking news, genre-specific lists of movies, TV, and original programming that rotate every month. Its “Always On” feature allows viewers to search for shows while watching another movie or show.”