As the coronavirus continues its sweep around the world, it is obvious that we have all been affected. For now, we’re all quarantined in some way, starring in our own reality show of videoconferences and hand-washing. So, while we wait for test results to determine our future, let’s take a look back to see if we can figure out what’s ahead once the crisis is over.
First, a mini history lesson: In the Great Depression of the 1930s, people went to the movies. The industry boomed. In the Great Recession of 2008, people watched TV. The industry boomed – or at least didn’t crater like other sectors of the economy. Back then, TV networks and suppliers were kept afloat by viewers reluctant to give up their most accessible form of entertainment – cable TV.
Now, with the coronavirus keeping us home, ratings are up again. There’s no place to go, so what better way to practice social distancing than by watching all kinds of TV on any screen at any time? You would think at-home entertainment is thriving, with everyone feasting on Love Is Blind while the outside world swirls in a sea of bad news and hand sanitizer.
Nice try. In truth, the glass is less than half full, especially in the factual sector of the industry, which at the producer level, is often six feet from profitability. Consider:
• Entertainment companies are bracing for the worst. The corporate giant Discovery, Inc. is feeling the disparity. With or without increased ratings at its many networks, the company is borrowing $500 million to stay afloat. And that’s just one signal of trouble. The phrase “material impact” is appearing in most corporate financial messaging from the major broadcasters, around the world.
• Viewers do not always mean revenue. There may be more people watching, but not more advertisers or subscribers. Viewers may not have enough money to buy anything new except (maybe) food. If you’re out of work, no amount of advertising will create discretionary spending.
• They’re watching the news. Ratings for cable and broadcast newscasts are way up, which means a potential drain on viewership for other kinds of shows, such as reality, documentary and scripted programs.
• Reruns? No, thanks. When it comes to non-fiction, networks and streamers can’t rely on repeats. There’s no equivalent of binge-worthy shows like Friends in the factual area. Repeats of non-fiction shows have a hard enough time getting viewers in normal times – I doubt that will change now.
• Without enough ads, networks might cut programming spends. See the news from ITV last week. Basically, that’s more bad news for producers at ad-supported networks. Think fewer episodes at even cheaper prices than they’re paying now. (Some might ask, what else is new?)
No one knows when things will be back to “normal.” But it’s not hard to imagine that the new normal will look different from our recent past. As we get used to our situation, even non-techy Luddites know that options for home entertainment are more diverse than ever.
The result? Streaming is everything. Want to watch that doc series that everyone’s talking about, Tiger King, or clean up your mess with Marie Kondo as you shelter in place? Or how about the star-studded series Morning Show or blockbuster theatrical hit Frozen 2? To get these shows, line up the apps and feast: Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, CBS All-Access, Disney+ and ESPN+, with soon-to-launch HBO Max, NBC’s Peacock and Quibi. Include the mind-blowing volume of selections offered by Pluto or Tubi, and you’ll have an anxiety attack figuring out what to watch.
Hooray for choice. But by this time next year, the free trials will be over, and you’ll notice that the cost of all those networks will grow, with the new model beginning to look suspiciously like… a cable bundle. Even with the torrent of programming, some people are already complaining that the newcomers like Disney+ don’t have enough original programming. The audience demands more for its money!
We’re heard this song before, and history may be repeating – or at least harmonizing – with itself. Maybe the past we should look to is not the 1930s or 2008, but the 1990s, when cable networks began to explode with original programming. As they spent more, those once-tiny networks overtook broadcast in quality, ratings and revenue. At the same time, cable bills began to get more and more expensive, which ultimately led to cord-cutters looking for alternatives, resulting in YouTube and all of today’s streamers.
So, if history is indeed repeating or harmonizing, we’ll all eventually be paying for all this new programming one way or another. Thus, while you wait for any sign of normalcy, about the best you can do is: Just stay home, watch TV, and enjoy it while you can.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.