This may seem like an odd question: but is TV having a good lockdown? We have been told for years that television is dying, so it was already in the midst of a crisis before coronavirus arrived. But will the pandemic be its final reckoning – or will it be the making of the medium?
Of course, the problem with the “TV is dying” thing, is that it is complete nonsense. Television’s “dying” can be described as a crisis; a reckoning, a “third digital revolution” or even, if you believe some people, a renaissance. The strange thing about TV “dying” is that, even before the virus, it was causing people to actually watch more TV.
In terms of total hours viewing of “professionally made television content” (a phrase we use to differentiate the Late Late Show from cats on skateboards on YouTube), people are watching more TV than ever before (up from an average of four hours a day five years ago to 4½ hours a day now).
They may be doing it slightly differently, shifting to new providers and services, but still essentially watching television and doing it on more devices, and more places, than ever before. But is the lockdown helping or hindering?
It was thought, early on in the crisis, that the pandemic would accelerate the trends we had seen over the last few years. Very often the “TV is dying” message is just a clumsy shorthand for shifting from watching broadcast channels to on-demand content, or for shifting your viewing from the TV brands your parents watched to new internet-based ones.
There is no doubt that these trends are occurring, and for some parts of the industry these feel like seismic shifts. Most of the crisis is just people swapping from national favourites such as RTÉ, TV3, BBC and ITV to watching upstart brands like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which seem to have a better handle on this technology thing.
A more accurate question might be: can traditional TV channels survive in this new world, and does their performance during the virus lockdown offer a hint as to how they might do this?
One of the arguments we have always offered for broadcast channels having a strong future is that live, broadcast TV is great for news, sports and events – everything else is just filler. The problem with the lockdown is that there aren’t any sports and there were very few “events” – at least until the Black Lives Matter moment.
Even TV news was struggling. There are only so many press conferences and podium sessions about medical data the viewing public can take. The podium sessions with then taoiseach Leo Varadkar or British prime minister Boris Johnson seemed visceral and important in the early phases of the virus, and channel viewing figures for news soared. Since then, the sessions have lost their initial allure and reaction has begun to split along party lines.
So TV news across Europe has been left searching for “gotchas”: a topless taoiseach in a park, or a government adviser driving 645km for a self-administered eye test. People have begun to turn away from broadcast news.
More troubling is that the advertising industry has followed suit. Brands were very quick to request that their advertising was kept away from early virus news coverage. This is reasonably common whenever global crises hit. But this time, brands doubled down and, as the true impact of the virus hit, they retreated to budget behaviour we haven’t seen since the financial meltdown. Although every marketing handbook says to advertise your way through a downturn, it is hard for finance directors to sign off TV campaigns when they are furloughing staff and shutting offices.
Social media spend
However, when you drill into the numbers for TV advertising, there are some interesting things going on. In the early part of the virus, it was clear that detergent brands were quietly upping social media spend and maintaining their presence on television. There are some other notable sectors that are maintaining screen presence. While airlines pulled all advertising immediately, delivery brands such as Amazon and Uber Eats have persisted. In fact, anyone with a strong online presence that can exploit the current situation seems to have maintained, if not actually grown, its TV spend.
For commercial broadcasters that are reliant on ad spend, it has been hard for them to deliver eyeballs without the content to draw viewers away from advertising free video-on-demand apps such as Netflix. Production of new TV shows has been dramatically curtailed, so it has become a battle of the archives as the number of repeats on mainstream TV channels has crept up.
Even that staple of daily, linear channel TV – the soap opera – has been hit by the virus. Fair City, EastEnders and Holby City all stopped filming in mid-March, although some broadcasters had enough episodes in the can to keep supplying the schedules. It has been odd watching those pre-recorded shows not mention a global pandemic that is occupying the waking hours of their audience.
The difficulty for the broadcast industry is that, just when it needed its big guns (sports, soaps, etc) to fight off competition from the subscription video-on-demand players, they were taken away. So channels are fighting off Netflix and Amazon with one arm tied behind their backs. We know that watching TV without advertising is seductive and addictive, so the last thing the broadcast industry needed was a global event that pushed people to stay at home and watch more ad-free video-on-demand.
Viewing figures for linear channels over the last eight weeks offer us no clear insight into the future success of live, linear broadcast channels. Now that Premier League football has started again, viewers seem to be glued to it from Cork to Colchester, with Sky recording record viewing for the first few big games. But these will all disappear again in a month and we will go into the traditionally light TV months of summer without them to anchor audiences.
Video-on-demand is now firmly part of the landscape. The shift of viewing from broadcast to video-on-demand has been with us as an industry phenomenon since the late 2000s, with the RTÉ Player launching in 2009. In the early part of the period, what we might call the “before Netflix era”, the broadcasters had the landscape to themselves. So, if we were to be uncharitable, we might say that their failure to create credible, broadcaster-owned Video-on-demand capability left a door open that Netflix marched through.
Part of the challenge has been understanding who was fighting who for audiences. In the pre-Netflix era, we assumed that this was a battle between broadcasters and TV platforms such as Sky and Virgin, which both launched on-demand TV and films early. But these platforms also supported the broadcasters in launching video-on-demand. RTÉ Player launched on Virgin Media Ireland (then UPC Ireland) in 2012 and on Sky Ireland in 2016. Then Amazon Prime launched on Virgin, and Netflix launched on Sky and it has begun to feel that TV platforms such as Sky and Virgin see themselves holding the ring while the old broadcasters battle it out with the new TV brands.
A reputed winner in the TV stakes has been the new subscription video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Disney+. This is made for lockdown telly, and during the early part of the pandemic it seemed that they would dominate. Disney+’s launch at the start of the pandemic seemed initially fortuitous. However, the extended run of binge watching and box set consumption has begun to reveal the limitations of its catalogue. Now, a concern is building up that it will actually run out of content.
The challenge when trying to plot a future for TV through all this is that we can’t even paint a picture of normal society post-coronavirus, let alone work out whether we will continue to watch soap operas on RTÉ or box sets on Amazon Prime. The brief experience of Premier League games hints that an autumn of live sport with limited access to stadiums could herald a great winter for TV. But the industry can’t live by sport alone: roll on Dancing with the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing.