With no “big” entertainment news, my gaze fell on a story simmering all month. Call it the “story of the month”, which is that TV is planning its return to the small screen. By TV, I mean broadcast and cable television. Which are, obviously, dead. That’s the narrative.
But since they still, somehow, impossibly, are watched by tens of millions of people in American and rake in billions of dollars, it’s worth at least one column.
Most Important Story of the Week – When Fall TV returns, It Will Look LIke Old-School Streaming
Here’s the plan, first I’ll explain the logistics of producing an episode of TV. Next, I’ll drop my big theory. Then, I’ll run through each network and my thoughts on their strategy. Good? Good. Let’s do it.
(By the by, everyone should listen to all of May’s TV Top Five podcasts. I don’t listen to as many entertainment biz podcasts as you’d guess because podcasting is my escape from my day job. But they do such great coverage it’s a must listen. May was basically explaining what we know and don’t about each broadcast network.)
TV Series Production Timelines…Explained!
First, it’s important to understand what the three to four month shutdown of TV production means. (Sets were shutting down in mid-march, and may return in June or July.) My rule of thumb for producing an episode of TV looks like this
X Weeks – Writing
6 Weeks – Pre-production
1-2 Weeks – Shooting (5 biz days for half hour; 10 days with a weekend for dramas. Single cam)
4 Weeks – Editing (sometimes up to six)
4 Weeks – Post Production
This is explained in this thread here, but it’s what I used when I did content planning a streaming company. That’s the calendar for scripted TV content. Reality can move faster, also depending on whether it’s a slice of life, game show, documentary, competition or what not.
What matters is adding them all up. Or about 4 months. Give or take a few weeks. (It’s my ballpark estimate.)
With coronavirus even that four months has a lot of uncertainty. Will pre-production take longer with coronavirus? Same for post production if folks have to edit from home or can’t work as closely. (I can’t imagine editing a show via Zoom!) Plus, if you want all your shows to launch simultaneously, like fall TV seasons of yore, you have to build in slacks for delays.
Add it all up, and if we start shooting in June, we’ll, fingers-crossed, have some half-hour shows ready by October. (Again, my schedules were for streaming, but are mostly the same.) More likely, we won’t have most shows until the end of November, and no broadcaster wants to launch shows then, for pre-existing biases. (We’ll get to whether those concerns are valid shortly.)
My Big Theory – Without Content, the Broadcasters Will Look Like Old School Streamers
I’m really talking about Netflix at its licensed content peak. Shows from other networks that were cancelled? Sure. International dramas that are surprisingly good? Absolutely. Random old shows refurbished? Yep, that too.
That’s what the hodgepodge broadcast season will look like.
It makes sense because the forces impacting the broadcast business have the same outcome as the forces impacting Netflix at the start. When Netflix started, it needed cheap content. Reruns provided that. Even better were “gently used” content, as Lesley Goldberg brilliantly describes it, that felt new, even if they were old. And they needed a lot of it.
Broadcast needs that now. They’re perfectly calibrated release schedules are in shambles with the shutdown. Meanwhile, they can’t afford to over-produce Netflix-style. So “gently used” content it is. Especially interesting will be how much content from their owned streamers will make it onto networks.
Each Network Ranked
So with these constraints, each network has to figure out how to get back to normalcy as much as possible. Here’s my ranking of how well I like each network’s plan, balancing roughly their plan to get “originals” back on the air and their plan for rep
- The CW: What? The CW is number one? This is the answer to my question for the broadcast exec I have the most respect for right now. His hand is so tough, and yet Marc Pedowitz makes the most out of it every season. As THR called it, his fall season is “coronavirus” proof, yet somehow feels like a typical CW season. A CBS All Access rerun? Check. A new DC series (that’s already been cancelled) in Swamp Thing? Check. Some doses of cheap, easy to produce reality? Yep. Meanwhile, they greenlight and renew almost everything, but they get the ratings they need. Meanwhile, half of everything is presold to streamers.
- Fox: Fox had already implemented a plan that meant they were most protected in a downturn. They’ve turned multiple nights into essentially live sports. Either NFL, WWE, or reality competition shows. Which meant that they’ve locked in their ratings. Throw in their huge animation catalogue for Sunday, and they only needed to fill out two nights. So buying a Spectrum Original no one saw fits that bill. My big caveat is that Fox bought two series that were due for July, and Fox is holding them for fall. I’m sure financially they see the upside, but if current TV is starved for good content, so why not just release them?
- or 6. CBS: CBS is gambling with their fall schedule. They are going to roll out shows when they are available. Right now they are telling Wall Street that will be in October as usual. This is a boom or bust strategy. Hence the 3 or 6 ranking. Which I respect for two reasons. First, I like the idea of getting shows out as soon as they are ready. I don’t know why in these times of turbulence networks are insisting on launching simultaneously. There’s too much content for that to work. Plus, if ABC and NBC have abandoned the fall it’s even easier to get mind share. Finally, CBS All Access provides the most easy to repurpose content. So expect either The Good Fight, Picard or The Twilight Zone to make an appearance.
- ABC: They cancelled a bunch of shows, but it’s unclear what their replacements are. Unlike CBS, they are leaning toward January as the return of new content. That feels “suboptimal” compared to the other strategies, but less risky. As for replacement content, it’s tricky. Disney+ only has one series worth ratings (The Mandalorian), but you could see a lot of the documentaries finding time on Saturday night. Hulu has another supply of shows that could work as well. What could push them higher? Well the NBA is going to occupy plenty of nights in September and October which should ease their ratings pain.
- NBC. Why so low? For NBC, I’m still not sure what their strategy is. It feels like the least fleshed out. Like ABC, they have leaned towards the January return as the return. Since Peacock hasn’t launched, it doesn’t really have original content to fill out the slate.
Other Contender for Most Important Story – Unions Release Back to Work Schedule
The other big news was that the unions and studios released a set of guidelines to get production back this or next month. It’s a 22 page document and it’s fine.
No one loves regulation more than me. I’m being serious: the idea that regulation strangles business is just wrong. Smart regulation adds tremendous value to society. (See Clean Air Act. See FDA. See antitrust, back when that was a thing.)
This report by committee is a regulation of a sort and it seems to go slightly overboard. I think 90% of the marginal benefits of preventing coronavirus will be seen by three policies:
- Regular (weekly) testing and isolation of individuals with positive tests.
- Wearing masks.
- Keeping moderate social distancing.
That’s it. So the rest of the 22 pages have what? Tons of stuff on cleaning surfaces? That in particular feels outdated because surfaces have largely been shown to not harbor the disease. Something like 98% of transmission is via airborne droplets. In my mind, that’s where you should focus your efforts. Instead, most of the recommendation is on cleaning surfaces. In my mind, that’s “cleaning theater” the way airport screenings were “security theaters”. They provide the illusion of preventing disease spread, while largely not doing anything.
Still, we have a plan and we’ll get back to work. That’s what matters. And once it happens it may surprise us how quickly it starts.
Data of the Week – Those HBO Max/Roku/Amazon Numbers That Bug Me
Let’s start with this: HBO Max is only launched in the United States.
Therefore, when Warner Media went to war with Amazon Channels and Roku Channels last week–read all about it here–the important thing was to index the size of those services for how big they are in America. If half of your users are in Europe, then it doesn’t really matter about this negotiation, does it? So when you see a headline like this…
You immediately should think, “Wait, is that global or US only number?” As usual, it’s using the global number for US customers. So I went searching to find the answer.
Now, for Roku, this isn’t as big of an issue. Less than 5% of their revenue comes from international sales, so if we apply that percentage to active users, then we still have a whopping 35 million active users in March. Watching about 4 hours per day.
What about for Amazon? Well, I have no idea how many folks are international versus US users. Because Amazon doesn’t tell us. Meanwhile, most folks speculate that a big chunk and maybe a majority of sales are overseas. So I looked for data and eventually Andrew Freedman of Hedgeye provided the data I craved:
If we assume usage is roughly correlated to active users–and I do–then we can see that while Fire TV is huge, it’s also significantly less than Roku. Arguably about 44% of Roku’s audience. I’d add, they may not be perfectly correlated. In that sense, I feel like more Roku users are full-time Roku users, and Fire TV users are a bit more sporadic. A good chunk of customers got Fire TV or Fire Sticks as a gift or add-on and use it way less. So let’s call it 15 million Amazon customers. (Also, this data has Amazon and Roku as 63% of the market, which is lower than the 70% often thrown around.)
So that nets out to about 60 million devices. Which is a lot! But 25% less than 80 million. For the last piece of context, from 2017 Pew had this breakdown of how many devices are in each home. It repeats the point that likely no home has a single solution for TV. And imagine how much it has likely grown since then.
Entertainment Strategy Guy Updates
We’re going long, so let’s go quickly.
Apple and Sports
Apple hired Jim DeLorenzo from Amazon. At Amazon, DeLorenzo helped launch the Amazon Channels biz, specifically the big sports deals. So is Apple looking to get into sports? Definitely maybe. DeLorenzo has that expertise. Although, he can also just help with their Channels business in general. I’ve been monitoring sports rights for a while, and this another sign the big tech players are circling, without any major commitments yet.
Disney+ is coming to Japan. This is a no brainer territory for Disney, but it likely required extra programming and product management to get a viable product. Japan loves Disney content as seen by the success of Tokyo Disney, though it is particular about lots of other TV, mostly preferring originals. This is more of a problem for other streamers than Disney, because of the catalogue.
Also, you’ll note they have another local partnership for distribution. Which is now their modus operandi. Does this invalidate my bundle recommendation from last week? No, as that’s more of a content recommendation and think they could still do that with these distribution deals. (Read that recommendation here.)
Disney+ plays with weekly releases
I held on to this one for a bit, but Disney+ released a series “binge-style”. I doubt this presages a new form of distribution for their tent pole series, but even Disney+ is experimenting with release styles. Which is fine! As long as they maximize their tentpole series. (Read that take in Decider here.)
Youtube Sells the Rights to Cobra Kai
Emphasis on the scripted. Meaning, the pricey originals. And really this is just an extension of their pull back I first wrote about in 2018. “Originals” are a buzzy, seductive trap that haven’t paid off for many of the folks running that strategy. And Youtube didn’t need them either. (Hat tip to Kasey Moore.)