Most Important Story of the Week – 20 March 20: Coronavirus and Pay/Linear TV…Boom or Bust?

You can tell we’ve hit peak coronavirus coverage when you see the headline “Did Disney predict the virus?” Because the film Tangled features a “quarantined” character in a town called “Corona”. Yep.

In more serious coverage, the predictions that coronavirus is “no big deal” have shifted to “we’ll be in lock down for 9 months” and folks are as confident as ever. Meanwhile, everyone is quite confident in all their predictions. 

I’m not. So my public service is to try to separate what we know from what we don’t in the entertainment business in the age of Covid-19.

Most Important Story of the Week – Linear/Pay TV…Boom or Bust?

In case you missed it last week, I picked a few tools to use to try to figure out how the coronavirus is impacting various parts of the video value chain. Including:

– Ignoring Narratives vs building out scenarios
– Demand, Supply and Employment
– What we know vs what we don’t
– And “what will change” and “what will stay the same”.

If you want a good example of how narratives can take us in the age of Coronavirus, consider Pay TV. This could simultaneously be the end of Pay TV as we know it or a boom time for live TV.

Narratives

Let’s start with the most extreme narrative: This is the death of Pay TV. Lest you assume this is the type of hyperbole only left for social media, here’s a Bloomberg headline with itScreen Shot 2020-03-22 at 3.12.58 PM.png

Note the question mark, but this still captures the feeling. The narrative goes: as consumers cut spending due to the impending recession, it will hasten cord cutting. In short, less folks will subscribe to traditional linear TV bundles than before. 

Of course, this trend was going on before the Coronavirus pandemic came to American shores. So will a widespread “quarantine” and consequent recession accelerate, decelerate or not impact the rate of various cord trimmings? What do we know and not? What are we guessing and what are we confidently estimating?

Demand

TV content falls into five rough categories: Scripted. Reality. Sports. Kids. News. I’m not breaking new ground, but that’s how I’ve always thought about it. So how does coronavirus impact demand for those five areas? 

Well, it may cause demand to go up for the first three categories, scripted, kids and reality TV. There is some evidence to support the idea that folks stuck inside turn to more TV consumption to pass the time. This includes films and peak TV series and cheesy reality shows. It will all benefit. So the first few categories should benefit from quarantine.

Given that this is a natural response to be stuck indoors, this is where the “death of pay TV” thesis starts to look shaky for me. Or at least contradictory to the other big narrative “quarantine and chill”. Especially when many folks predict both narratives simulaneously. For both theories to be true requires folks to “watch more streaming” but simultaneously “watch less linear TV”. From a strictly demand perspective, it’s unclear how linear TV doesn’t benefit from increased consumption as much as streaming. In fact, the initial data says both streaming and linear TV are both up.

Notably, it’s not up as much as you’d expect. A healthy chunk of people are still working, just from home. Another chunk have likely added other distractions or hobbies to the mix. But overall TV viewing is up, along with streaming viewing. Demand-wise, they’ve both benefited in the short term. 

Will it last? I doubt it. This doesn’t feel like a permanent viewing behavior shift to me; simply a function of not being allowed to go outside one’s home. Same with kids content: if you force a bunch of kids to skip school, parents will have them watch more TV, especially if the park is closed. When folks go back to work and kids go back to school, it feels more likely that demand returns to normal, not some permanent shift.

Arguably, if supply constraints weren’t present, we’d see a ton of demand of the fourth category too. If sports were available (see supply), that’d be a huge amount of viewing right now. A “not cancelled” March Madness would have shattered records if they could have held it with all 300 million Americans stuck at home. In other words, demand for sports hasn’t abated, just been shifted to other topics. (And meanwhile, most streaming doesn’t have sports programming.) As it is, sports channels have seen ratings plummet:

(My big curiosity? Does some of the sports/demand for competition get shifted to pseudo-competition series as in reality game shows? Top Chef is coming back to the air. Survivor is in mid-season. Even MTV’s The Challenge is coming back in April. Maybe they grab some of that demand for competitive sports.)

As for news? Well, this is the big area that streamers just can’t compete. (For now.) If you want to hear the latest Los Angeles or New York City public announcement on Covid-19, you have to turn to a local station. Frankly, a cable subscription is the easiest way to do that. And the initial data suggests that folks are indeed watching more news content than before. (And I’d expect this too to revert back to “normal” after Coronavirus worries subside.)

Add it up? Well, on the demand side there seems to be plenty in favor of linear TV in “raw demand” terms. Obviously, though, actual sales are a function of price compared to demand. Does a pending recession obliviate pay TV?

Maybe. A recession crunches wallets, which in turn forces high priced luxuries to go by the way side. “High priced luxury” is a pretty good description of cable TV at this point compared to other digital options. So will folks continue to pay outrageously high cable and satellite bills as they get laid off? Maybe. Especially with the proliferation of other options. We know cord cutting is coming. The statistics back that up.

But to make this prediction implies a pretty substantial prediction about the impending recession. And how deep it will be. And whether the cable companies offer cheaper bundles in lieu of losing subscribers or stick to the current business model. In other words, a host of variables (that few folks can predict). 

(Not to mention cord cutting is a misnomer as many more folks “cord shift” or “cord shave”. Turns out cord trimming is complicated.)

I’d flag all this as a big “we don’t know.”  If the recession continues through the end of the year, absolutely that could accelerate cord cutting, though it may be taken up by cord shifting. If the recession is short? Well, the desire to keep things the same may not have the same impact.

Supply

Again, with coronavirus, the pandemic is unique in that it can wallop both demand and supply. 

Coronavirus started by hammering the TV production industry. If groups of more than 10 people can’t get together, well you can’t make a TV show. Period. Right now, nearly every television production is on hold.

The question is how this plays out over the next few months. An extended shut down means that TV will mostly go to reruns or shows—like many reality shows—that were mostly already recorded. However, by June, if production hasn’t resumed on some basis—I imagine at least reduced staffing for the foreseeable future—than linear channels may run out of content.

How long does this last? Well, I’ve seen predictions from 6 weeks to 9 months of shut down. That’s a huge range.

Moreover, it violates the most common mistake in economic forecasting, which is that actors adapt to their surroundings. Productions are shut down because they can’t film in groups of more than 10. But at a certain point, you’d have to imagine that studios and production companies will get creative with how they shoot TV shows or ask for exemptions. Or figure out ways to screen employees. Yes, it may be a while before things are back to “normal”, but shows could return faster than you think. 

I’d apply this to the other big supply constraint, the lack of live sports. Honestly, sports could have the quickest rebound of all TV content. Yes, while it’s unlikely that 10,000 people will get together to watch a game in the next couple of months, to film a basketball game all you need is 12 players on each side, two coaches and the referees. And camera crews. Yes, that’s a lot of people, but way less than 10,000. Could the NBA ask for exemptions with strong testing to get games in front of folks? I imagine so.

Will they? Will TV productions get creative? Maybe. Maybe not.

There is one other huge supply constraint that is honestly the biggest threat to linear TV, and it’s usually the area that soothsayers predicting the demise of Pay TV ignore: advertising. If a recession comes in and comes hard, one of the first areas every business cuts is the promotion and advertising budgets. This could hurt everyone from social media to Google to linear TV.

Yet, linear TV also has all those eyeballs and an election on the way. Still, its the biggest “supply” constraint to watch for TV. How do linear advertising payments shift? I don’t know which way it will go, but it will likely have the biggest impact on the future of this industry.

Employment

In some ways, linear TV will have less employment impacts than theaters. Theaters have a mass of low wage employees out there every day. Networks have a lots of people, but not like that. 

Still, the economic impact on the below-the-line workers will likely have the biggest impact. They are the economically most vulnerable and will stay so in a recession.

I’d add: I can see remote productions have even more trouble in the future, which could help Hollywood. If actors don’t feel like boarding airplanes for film/TV shoots, the natural location is old-fashioned Hollywood.

Strategic Recommendations

1. Begin quarantines for sports and talk show staffs, if possible. If folks are quarantined together, they can’t share the disease, but they can generate content. “Getting creative” is always my go to advice for companies. And there are ways to get SNL, the Late Shows and other comedies back on the air in an age of “reduced quarantine”. It requires thinking how to do it and figuring out creative ways to house employees early.

2. If I’m cable, get more aggressive with skinny bundles. Cut the fat, and blame it on coronavirus. Folks will still want news and sports. Fortunately for the cable/satellite bundles, the streamers don’t have any real sports or news capability. So skinny linear bundles can fill that need.

3. I see an edge for vMPVDs too. Really, those are just the nu-cable bundles. (vMVPDs like Hulu Live TV or Youtube TV). They can also offer the sheer tonnage of scripted/reality shows that folks want along with sports and news. So price discounts for those will make a lot of sense. 

4. Lean in to reality when the quarantine ends. That’s the quickest way to get lots of content back on the air, while getting scripted series back on the air.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Quibi!!!

It’s no secret I’m hugely skeptical of Quibi. At the core, it’s because they are avoiding an entire method of distribution, which is living room TV. For all the growth in mobile, I just don’t think you can be viable without TV sets in your arsenal. The latest news is that Quibi is offering a 90 day free trial, which will the longest in the industry. We’ll see if it works. I’m still more bullish on HBO Max and Peacock with their huge libraries. Especially in an age of quarantine.

Crowded VOD

Last week, Universal was moving some films to VOD early. This week it became a flood with Onward joining Rise of Skywalker joining Emma (and then Lovebird went straight to Netflix via Paramount). On the one hand this shouldn’t be too surprising, since these films weren’t going anywhere in theaters. (Variety has a good list of how everything has moved.)

But part of me thinks this is still pretty shortsighted. If we are in for a long lock-down, come May a studio could really benefit by having these VOD launch weekends all to themselves. Crowded weekends aren’t good for film, TV or VOD. In the long run, will this be a huge impact? No, but I think some of the studios are rushing.

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