Wolk’s Week In Review: how coronavirus affects TV industry

TV[R]EV Week In Review

Well-known industry analyst Alan Wolk is publishing his popular Week In Review columns first on FierceVideo every Friday. This means that FierceVideo readers are the first to get all Wolk's insights as they navigate the fast-moving television business.

Wolk's Week In Review

It seems more than a little odd to focus on minor shifts to the TV ecosystem this week while the World As We Know It has been turned on its head as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thus, this week’s Week In Review, will focus on how the pandemic is likely to affect the television industry, which admittedly sounds equally parochial and small-minded, but it is the one thing I am able to talk about with any degree of confidence.

Why it matters

With social distancing a thing, sports leagues and movie theaters temporarily closed down, the one form of entertainment people will have available to them is TV. And so these next few weeks will be when people actually start to check out all of those Shows They’ve Been Meaning To Watch, but haven’t had time for.

So what does that mean for the industry?

News matters

If nothing else, the events of the past few weeks have helped reestablish the primacy of TV as a news source. While digital/social outlets like Twitter are more immediate and have also likely been seeing a significant bump, the big announcements, the ones everyone watches together, still happen on TV. (There’s also been a presidential election going on that was big news until about three days ago, and that’s been a boon to TV news too.)

What that means is that even with the rollout of six new “Flixes” (multibillion dollar subscription streaming services), which brings the grand total to nine, people are going to want to subscribe to something that lets them watch breaking news on TV.

So advantage to AT&T, which now owns CNN and to Comcast, which owns MSNBC. Disney has ABC News and ViacomCBS has CBS News, neither of which are twenty-four broadcasts, but can be, in times of crisis, and all four companies could conceivably introduce a live news feed on (respectively) HBO Max, Peacock, Hulu and CBS All Access should the need arise.

That gives them a leg up on Netflix, Amazon and Apple, who are, as of today, without their own news channels. (Though given the latter two companies massive financial resources, that’s not necessarily permanent.)

Business model matters

We’ve often noted that Netflix is the only one of the major TV companies for whom the production and distribution of television content is their sole revenue stream. Apple makes hardware, Amazon is an e-commerce machine, Comcast is a cable company that sells broadband, Disney owns theme parks, as does National Amusements, the company that owns ViacomCBS, as does Comcast for that matter, via their Universal division.

So, Netflix will clearly benefit from more people watching TV and given that this is a global pandemic, the fact that Netflix is in every country except for China, North Korea and Syria, means a lot of people will be watching Netflix and/or getting a subscription right around now.

Amazon is in good shape too because people are ordering more things online, especially as panic buying builds, and that gives them a chance to promote their programming on an almost constant basis at little or no cost.

Apple may make out a little better—being at home may make people decide they need to upgrade their phones, tablets or laptops, all of which come with a free one-year subscription. So no cash infusion, but many potential new viewers.

The theme parks companies (Disney, Comcast and VCBS) are taking a hit on those businesses and on the movie studios they own—but likely not enough of a hit to render a severe blow and many of those potential theme park goers could make up for it by watching/subscribing to more TV.

So there’s that.

Timing matters

HBO Max, Peacock, VCBS-Flix and Discovery-Flix are all still just projects on the drawing board, so unless their parent companies rush them out to market fairly soon (and Max and Peacock are in fact due to launch sometime soon) then they are missing the boat here and letting their competitors—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus—solidify their existing user base.

Not a fatal development, but certainly a lost opportunity, one that, in fairness, they could not have seen coming.

What you need to do about it

Not to be overly mercenary about it, but this does offer a great opportunity for the industry to add viewers, given that they have a captive audience looking for ways to stave off boredom.

So if you’re a Flix, you can buy yourself a whole mess of good will and positive PR by offering everyone a free month (or two) during the crisis. You can even limit free viewership to certain series or a certain number of hours (which could seem overly petty) but any sort of giveaway would be a great way to get viewers to sample your shows and eventually subscribe all while creating goodwill among people who are already more or less inclined to like you.

If you’re one of the FASTS (Free Ad Supported Streaming TV Services like Pluto, Tubi, Xumo and The Roku Channel) then this is a good time to ramp up your marketing efforts. Your services are already free, but lots of people are unaware of them and in times of stress being able to watch a favorite movie (for free, no less) is going to be very appealing to many viewers.

If you’re the folks at home, stay calm (well try to, anyway), wash your hands a lot, stay home if you can, and let us know what shows you’re liking.

To start the ball rolling, I’m catching up on the third season of "Babylon Berlin" on Netflix. It’s based off the excellent series of novels about a detective in Weimar Germany by Volker Kutscher, and is available dubbed or with subtitles. So that and Hulu’s remake of "High Fidelity" with Zoe Kravitz, which I approached with trepidation since it was one of my favorite books back in the day, but the remake is really, really well done, updating the pre-internet 90s music scene for 2020.

Your turn.