Streamers and broadcasters face the unenviable task of delivering fewer shows to bigger audiences with less money to spend on production and acquisition. Richard Middleton and Mark Layton explore how they are weathering this uncertain time – and the steps some are taking to keep content rolling and viewers engaged.
Few sectors of the economy have experienced an uptick in demand for their services since Covid-19 took hold, but the content delivery business is one of them.
Streamers have seen subscriber numbers rise and ratings for most broadcasters have been buoyed by locked down audiences. Yet even that doesn’t necessarily mean a positive outcome for producers and content creators looking for buyers.
Execs were left scrambling as the pandemic took hold, working out what they had in the can and what could be strung out over the coming weeks or months – not that anybody knew then, or knows now, when their country’s respective lockdowns will end. And while the attention has understandably focused on advertising-supported broadcasters – which have found themselves in the unenviable position of having rising ratings but no brands with cash to splash – streamers have also had to adapt to this new normal.
Stuck in the stream
One example of this was NBCUniversal (NBCU), which rolled out its new OTT service Peacock to select users in the US in April amid warnings from senior execs that Covid-19 had had a “significant” impact on its launch. The vast majority of production on its originals planned for later in the year has halted as a result of the pandemic and plans to launch more widely in tandem with the Olympics in Japan have also been dashed after the sporting extravaganza was delayed to 2021.
The latter especially has left gaping holes in schedules around the world, compounded by other sporting events such as football’s
European Championships being pushed to next year. Further, it is deeply impacting ad spend and the subsequent ability to invest in programming, with execs and analysts telling TBI that the much vaunted AVOD services that were just months ago seen as key revenue drivers also being hit. The result, execs suggest, is more cautious spending.
For Peacock, more specifically, the pandemic has limited its slate for the rest of the year, with a “significant” number of originals now set to debut in 2021 rather than 2020. It hopes to offer series including Brave New World plus reboots of Punky Brewster and Saved By The Bell this year, and the streamer is also exploring opportunities to commission Covid-19 related programming. But the message was clear: 2020 will be “our runway” to 2021.
With so many existing productions delayed and, crucially, with a deep existing library on which to rely on in the mid-term, it seems commissioning spend might be thinner in 2021 than some had hoped. HBO Max, which is to launch 27 May, has found itself in a similar bind, having to postpone the launch of its much-vaunted Friends reunion for example because of lockdown.
And even Netflix’s deep pockets will only stretch so far. The headline’s screamed that Covid-19 – plus shows such as Tiger King, La Casa De Papel and Love Is Blind – had helped the world’s biggest streamer to even loftier heights, with almost 16 million new subscribers over the first quarter.
Yet even the commissioning king – seen by some as the great hope for an industry needing some serious capital injection – looks on shaky ground. Much of its programming for the next three months is completed but in its letter to investors in mid-April, the company said that it had “never seen a future more uncertain or unsettling.”
Like other home entertainment services, the company has seen “temporarily higher viewing and increased membership growth”, although it immediately put a downer on proceedings by pointing out that the dollar – long a safe haven currency in dire times – meant there has been a “depressing” impact on global revenues. It added that there would be “less cash spending this year as some content projects are pushed out.”
Producers tell TBI that the streamer’s buyers around the world remain as active as ever but suggest that there could be a shift towards less costly unscripted fare – a strategy presumably appealing given the fact that shows such as Tiger King and Red Arrow Studios’ Love Is Blind have performed so well.
The streamer has also said that “significant disruption” had been felt on the production side so far, although more than 200 projects are in post. Virtual writers rooms are in place too – no doubt with one eye on ensuring that existing commissioning commitments keep it ahead of the competition as Peacock, Apple TV, Disney+ and others look to come back with a bang when some kind of normal returns.
Changing channels & opportunities
For channel operators around the world, Covid-19 has resulted in ratings rises coupled with dire warnings about future earnings. But of immediate concern was balancing schedules: the UK’s ITV and the BBC have cut back on airing soaps while over in the US, cablers such as Showtime have rejigged timelines with planned series such as Billions and The Chi being delayed. Over in Ireland, ratings driver Fair City stopped production and shifted to air twice weekly instead of four times, Dermot Horan, director of acquisitions and co-productions at Ireland’s RTÉ, tells TBI.
Feel-good shows have understandably become a key focus for programme purveyors, keen to offer audiences some form of escapism. Cate Slater, director of content at Television New Zealand (TVNZ), adds that her broadcaster has also been looking for high-impact second window drama for its VOD service TVNZ OnDemand, as well as library content to fill schedule holes due to production shutdowns.
RTÉ is doing likewise. “There are a lot of more mature people who are stuck at home and are obviously extremely nervous, because they’re in a vulnerable age group or they may have underlying health issues,” says Horan. That has meant providing shows that “will help people escape and escape back into their youth. Those kind of titles have a real value at this time.”
Horan, who is also VP of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)’s TVCommittee, says his counterparts across the continent are all “faring pretty much” in the same way. “My colleagues in other acquisition departments are beginning to look at material made in recent years that perhaps for one reason or another they weren’t able to pick up [but will do so now],” he adds.
IP rights holders seem to be playing fair on pricing however, despite the surging demand for library content. But there could be a lag effect – TV2’s acquisition chief Anette Rømer points out that at present, it has been largely “business as usual” in Denmark, although the broadcaster had to cancel its new version of Warner Bros. reality format The Bachelor. “This was part of a major strategy to strengthen our AVOD service TV2 Play,” she reveals.
For Slater in New Zealand, it’s a similar picture on the cost front. “What we’re seeing in the open market are distributors looking to move library programming or unsold content previously rejected in this territory. We’re not seeing increased demand or rate increases at this point,” Slater says.
Rømer has also had to contend with turning TV2’s Sport X network into a film channel, due to the lack of live sports, while Israeli pay TV and streaming outfit Yes – which debuted hit Netflix drama Fauda among numerous others – has launched a dedicated linear network in response to the pandemic.
Keren Gleicher, SVP of content acquisition, tells TBI, that the media company has not dramatically changed its buying strategy in terms of genres but is looking to offer new avenues for consumption. This includes the creation of a new TVOD service for theatrical shows.
“We’re still looking to buy the same types of shows we did before, but are offering them in new creative ways,” reveals Gleicher. “We’re sourcing content from various partners, including distributors and various local channels we carry on the platform, and curating content specials on our linear and on demand.”
On the other side of the world, Slater at TVNZ – like RTÉ, the BBC, TV2 and many others – tells TBI the focus is on bolstering both educational and entertainment content for kids and families. She adds: “The situation has created a greater sense of focus on critical matters, such as maintaining our core operations and safeguarding our news production, and prioritising the content that matters most to our viewers at this time.”