It may not feel like it, but for the vast majority of the world, life amidst the pandemic has been soldiering on for more than a year now, and while most of us would probably prefer to focus on happier milestones, it still seems worthwhile to mark the occasion by taking a look back at how the pandemic has affected the media, content, and programming landscapes over the past year, as well as look forward to how those effects may permeate the months to come.
Within the world of production, changes came fast and hard. A great number of projects already in progress at the onset of the crisis were scrapped, delayed, or released on streaming platforms rather than solely in theaters, many of which were in the process of closing their doors, some of them for good. For an example of such adaptation, look no further than entertainment giant Warner Bros., whose entire catalog of upcoming 2021 films will be made available on HBO Max, in addition to a somewhat diminished distribution within theaters. Those projects destined for TV rather than the big screen did not suffer the same immediate demands as their box office brethren, but that does not mean they were able to avoid making substantial changes or that they did not experience the same level of impact. Of course there was the same slew of cancellations and delays, and we are already very familiar with the boom in streaming platforms over the past year. However, one year deep and with the well of legacy content and nearly finished productions that were able to reach completion beginning to run dry, the networks and streaming platforms for whom TV programming is a familiar bailiwick are seeking out better solutions for their content needs.
What was called an “unprecedented and strange year” by Kelly Kahl, President of CBS Entertainment, demanded adjustments, of which the aforementioned organization made many, including the ordering of new series without first producing pilot episodes and shooting series with stripped down audiences and crews. Now that vaccines are being widely distributed and post-COVID life seems like more than a pipe dream, what kinds of changes in TV programming and production are likely to be swiftly reverted and which ones might have more staying power?
Well for starters, shorter seasons and an unpredictable broadcast schedule are likely to remain a part of the TV landscape, at least for the foreseeable future. As production remains difficult to schedule and the overall situation stays fluid, we should expect to continue to see production disruptions that lead to fewer episodes of ongoing shows, new shows being commissioned simply on the strength of their screenplays and potential casting alone without any pilot episodes, and a catch-as-catch can release schedule that may not even remotely resemble that of previous years. The streaming boom probably isn’t going anywhere, either. Not only are existing platforms conducting record amounts of business, new players in the streaming space are doing quite well for themselves too, like Discovery, who managed to attract 12 million subscribers to its shiny new Discovery+ platform in the first month of its lifetime.
Unfortunately, the benefit to the platforms themselves does not always extend down to every show, many of which saw themselves ‘unrenewed’, a status perhaps not with the same finality as a cancellation, but unenviable regardless. In many cases, this was due to the nature of certain shows being particularly physical or otherwise not amenable to pandemic production. Awards shows have been hit hard, too – without the pizazz of star-studded audiences, ostentatious red carpet attire, and big theatrical releases to follow, viewers simply have not exhibited the same interest in awards ceremonies as in previous years. The Emmys, Golden Globes, Oscars, and even the Grammys all saw historic lows in viewership.
On the other hand, some shows decided to take the pandemic as an opportunity to weave profound global events into their fictional narratives, and it has been featured within the worlds of shows like “Law and Order: SVU”, “Superstore”, and “Grey’s Anatomy”, which portray pandemic life within hospitals, major retail stores, and other contexts that are relatable to people’s actual lives. For those shows that have continued production, other creative limitations have come into play. This runs the gamut from fewer exterior locations in scenes, less romantic entanglement, and scaled back action. In some cases, these aren’t merely creative considerations either – the realities of COVID are pushing production costs up by as much as 30%, and producers are trying to keep up. Cost saving measures like dumping exterior shots are appealing from a budgetary standpoint even in regular circumstances, and may continue to be practiced even once the pandemic is no longer a concern.
The disruptions in production caused by the pandemic have had effects on advertising, too. With unpredictable release schedules and outstanding questions regarding potential audiences, many types of advertising are more uncertain than they have been in the past, particularly practices like upfront ad purchasing. Ad revenue for traditional national TV took a substantial hit in the past year, while revenues from sources like ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) platforms have soared, and you can bet those platforms will be doing everything in their power to keep the balance in their favor even after the worst of the pandemic is over. Alongside our content, our viewing habits have changed, too. Weekday viewing patterns have become more akin to pre-pandemic weekend patterns, with daytime viewing skyrocketing and accompanied by only a mild decrease in attention and engagement. People are hungry for entertainment and distraction, a desire being increasingly satisfied by OTT services, while traditional heavyweights like live sports have taken more of a backseat. Overall, the pandemic has had a substantial impact on how shows are produced, distributed, and viewed. Understanding the motivating factors behind these changes, as well as their probable longevity, is going to be crucial to the success of TV advertisers over the next year, and quite possibly longer.