TV in the time of coronavirus

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Around a third of the world’s population has had their freedom of movement limited to a lesser or greater extent – these restrictions include recommended or mandatory social distancing, school closures and orders to work from home if at all possible. For the billions of people now spending the vast majority of their time at home, TV has become the primary source of entertainment and connection with the outside world. It is a trusted source of information and distraction, and even acts a social glue: it’s one of few things that we still have in common that isn’t the battle against the covid-19.

TV is an industry that has seen huge change over the last few years: the pandemic will accelerate that change and, in some cases, even reshape it.

People are watching more TV than ever

It’s no surprise that TV viewing figures across the world have increased dramatically over the last few months. In the two-week period to March 29th, overall usage of TV among viewers aged 18-49 in the US increased by 25% year on year, compared to the same period in 2019. Streaming video on demand (SVOD) services have enjoyed similar gains: Netflix subscriptions are reportedly up 27%, Hulu’s are up 16% and Amazon’s 21% (according to NBC). In the UK, TV viewing grew by 17% year on year in the week commencing March 16th – and that was a week before lockdown restrictions were implemented. Meanwhile, Statista found that 43% of US adults are now more likely to watch movies from a streaming service, while 40% of adults are more likely to watch TV online.

Primetime has shifted earlier as viewers turn to TV to alleviate boredom throughout the day. According to Conviva, daytime viewing jumped by nearly 40% in the week of 17th-23rd March, versus the week of 3rd to 9th March.

A profound effect on advertisers

Of course, the impact of coronavirus on brands has been profound: many are seeing decreased sales with customers unable to leave the house, and with financial concerns of their own affecting purchasing decisions. With decreased revenue, many advertisers have pulled back some of their advertising spend – American travel advertisers, for example, cut their spend by 50% in the first two weeks of March: that cut is likely to have increased significantly as more travel restrictions have been implemented in late March and in April.

Advertisers are redirecting linear TV spend

Sport is an incredibly important advertising opportunity for many brands, reaching as it does many hard-to-reach consumers, including young men. The fact that pretty much all live sports events have been cancelled or postponed for the next few months has left gaping holes in media plans and TV network revenues and has made premium audiences harder to reach. Advertisers are redirecting linear investment, particularly investment which had been targeted at sort, to other inventory controlled by the TV networks including digital inventory, as the latter attempt to make up for lost reach and hang on to ad revenue. However, brands are also increasingly redirecting linear TV spend to the streaming platforms, accelerating a trend that was already worrying the linear TV networks. It’s interesting to note that the streaming networks are unlikely to enjoy the same level of spend by advertiser as the linear TV networks do: ads on streaming platforms can be targeted to specific audience segments, allowing the advertisers to spend less money.

With increased pressure on their bottom lines, particularly in light of an imminent recession, some brands may be tempted to remove their spend from TV and streaming altogether in favour of Google or Amazon, which are more likely to lead directly to product sales.

Coronavirus will impact on all players in the TV industry

The entire TV and streaming industry will be affected, but it’s likely that TV networks will suffer more than the streaming platforms, thanks in part to their reliance on live sport. Although TV viewing figures are up dramatically, this increased supply is being met with lower demand from advertisers, which is causing prices to decrease. Interestingly, when US network NBCUniversal announced that its viewing figures had increased sharply, it also shared that it would be cutting back on some of its advertising inventory in order to improve viewer experience. This is a laudable effort to stop prices plummeting, and is a trend we expect to see across the TV industry as a whole over the next months and years.

A triple whammy of factors leading to a loss in ad revenue

The loss of ad revenue will be a key implication of the coronavirus pandemic for the TV industry. The triple whammy of advertisers looking to make savings in their marketing budgets, a lack of live sports and the pause in production of new content leading to holes in programming, the outlook is fairly bleak, particularly for the traditional TV networks. The streaming services may fare better at least in the short term as advertisers shift their budgets to them from the traditional networks, but they will be equally affected by a lack of content down the line.

The surge in subscriptions may be temporary

While it seems so far that the lockdown has led to a surge in subscriptions, particularly for the streaming networks as mentioned above, the upward trend isn’t reliable. The coronavirus pandemic has caused huge increases in unemployment across the world: twinned with worries about a global recession, consumers may well be looking for ways to tighten their belts, and they might be willing to forego their streaming subscriptions, particularly when the lockdown is over and financial concerns kick in.

Sports fans will resubscribe – but to which service?

Whether or not they are concerned about money, sports fans in the US may also consider cancelling their pay-TV subscriptions while there is no live sport. They are likely to re-subscribe when sport returns, but could be tempted by the flexibility and lower prices of services such as YouTube and Hulu: this will be a true test of the theory that it is live sport that keeps people tethered to traditional TV.

A lasting impact on traditional TV and the streaming platforms

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated and reshaped a transformation that was already happening to the TV and streaming industries. Some of the effects of the virus will undoubtedly be temporary – sport will return and advertisers will pay to reach the people that watch them – other effects, such as the shift towards the streaming platforms, will be more permanent.

Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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