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COVID-19 and TV

Here are answers to some of the questions we’re being asked at Thinkbox about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on TV. We hope you find them useful.

What impact is COVID-19 having on TV viewing?

With people having to spend more time at home, we have witnessed a dramatic effect on TV viewing during lockdown, with huge rises across the board. Two weeks after lockdown started, TV viewing was up by 32% year on year, having been tracking down about 4% this year. That’s 50 minutes more a day.

Over the weeks of full lockdown (23 March-10 May), linear TV saw an average rise of 21% (+18% for 16-34s) and commercial Broadcaster VOD was up by 45%. With the nation’s routines profoundly altered, we saw distinct changes to TV viewing patterns. Daytime TV viewing was up 36% and daytime reach up 22%, whilst viewing among children grew 32%. As households spent more time at home together, we observed a 30% rise in shared viewing and distinct increases in viewing of certain genres. Unsurprisingly, viewing of news content increased by 45%, but there were also notable increased for films (+34%) and comedy (+21%).  The figures varied week to week, but the impact was clear.

Will it change what we watch?

As society has temporarily withdrawn into the home, TV has been there for us all as a source of trusted information and much-needed distraction. Viewers tastes have broadened as they have had more time to watch and try new content and platforms, but also as some have needed to fill the gap left by the pausing of live sport, for example.  TV has been used during different times of the day as more people have stayed at home, and there has been a marked jump in shared viewing as households gather around to watch TV together.  The need for comfort, to connect and escape have also became more prevalent.

What impact will COVID-19 have on TV advertising?

Businesses are under immense pressure, which inevitably puts pressure on their advertising budgets. Some sectors will be affected more – travel is the obvious example. We have seen some campaigns put on hold.

Some, though, could see a surge of interest because their products and services will be vital in this period. There can scarcely be a better time to be an online retailer, for example. Home entertainment too has never been more central to our lives. Disney+ launched at a good time, if this time can ever be described as good.

As some advertisers, like travel, have little choice but to reduce their TV spend, and TV viewing shoots up while more people spend more time at home, the average price for a TV spot has come down (in TV terms this means demand is down and supply is up). The impact of this for advertisers is that TV advertising pricing will offer even better value over the next couple of months.

Should businesses keep advertising?

Yes. If they can. When we emerge from this crisis, brands that maintained or built during it will be much stronger for it. This is easier said than done, and it may feel weird to be talking about opportunities at a time like this, but the worst thing to do would be to grind everything to a halt. We must engage with the real world and its future still. And advertising has an important role to play in keeping commerce going and fuelling the economy.

But the way businesses advertise now will change. Sales activation, for example, is currently only appropriate for a narrow group of lockdown-friendly products. But when we emerge, brands that maintained or built will be much stronger for it. Now is the time to back up your brands.

How are broadcasters responding to the situation?

In every way they can. Be that quickly launching relevant new shows, like Channel 4’s ‘Jamie: Keep Cooking and Carry on’; rapidly adapting existing formats, like the record audience for ITV’s ‘Saturday Night Takeaway’, re-created without its studio audience; or keeping us up to date with what’s happening: millions are glued to the news and the Prime Minister’s address to the nation was watched by 27 million people on TV, the Queen by 24 million. It is telling that TV journalists are on the government’s list of key workers.

How will what’s on screen change?

The broadcasters are being fleet of foot, keeping our shows on, and keeping us informed and entertained. They are also having to make the tough choices of putting some shows on hold or reducing the output of certain shows, even while large chunks of content and revenue – like sport – disappear from the schedules awhile.

So, things are changing a bit. However, there is a big gap opening for daily shows that will help audiences adjust to the situation we’re in. We’ll need to hear from experts, get advice and support. We’ll also need to make light of the situation. So, watch as each broadcaster develops their own schedule to fill the gaps left from the production freeze of scripted content.

Will there be more repeats on TV?

A repeat is only a repeat if you haven’t seen it before. And repeats are a much-loved part of people’s TV diets already – how many times have you re-watched the odd episode of Friends?

But, with reduced production budgets, broadcasters’ vast back catalogues will certainly come into play more. This is an opportunity for many. These are back catalogues that have helped propel services like Netflix to prominence (and which are now being taken away from Netflix as broadcasters focus on their own streaming services). As people spend more time at home, we expect to see audiences come out of their usual more restricted content diets and start to experiment with new series.

What will be the impact on subscription streaming services?

Demand for great content will be at an all-time high, although there will also be pressure on our wallets. But it would be strange to cut back on entertainment and high-quality distraction at a time like this, when we’re in desperate need of it.

The streaming wars are certainly on and advertiser-funded Broadcaster VOD viewing has been growing rapidly recently, and it is being further turbo-charged by the current situation. Broadcaster VOD services like All 4, ITV Hub and Sky on demand are experiencing record viewing levels. And, as mentioned above, broadcasters have begun taking their content back from the likes of Netflix, which puts a lot of pressure on them to have enough to keep people interested.

That said, people have already shown that they are happy to have multiple sources of TV in their lives, both ad-funded and subscription. So, the smart money is on TV in all its forms seeing at least a short-term increase in viewing.

What long-term effects do you expect this to have on TV?

It is worth bearing in mind that often, when constraints force us into doing things a new way, we carry on with our new ways when the constraints are removed. Right now, we are seeing new formats and new approaches from the broadcasters, and we are seeing live viewing re-vitalised even as we re-distribute our viewing across linear and on demand forms of TV.

But, when we come out of this, things will likely not look the same as they have before for a while. Production budgets will be lower for a while and the whole TV industry will have to adapt. Part of this will involve finding lower cost ways to entertain mass audiences, so this could mean more co-pros for high-end drama, for example, and could lead to acquisitions and mergers.

What long-term effects will this have on advertising?

When we come through this, advertisers are likely going to want to reduce the risk of their advertising investments. We know from studies such as Ebiquity and Gain Theory’s ‘Profit Ability’ and ‘Demand Generation’ by MediaCom, Gain Theory and Wavemaker that linear TV and Broadcaster VOD deliver the highest returns with the least risk, so this bodes well for TV advertising. Potentially advertisers will also look to increase their efficiency as budgets may be reduced. The increasing availability and targeting capabilities of addressable TV advertising will be a powerful way to deliver this.

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