In coronavirus terms, think of what we’ve seen from a few of the TV-centric media companies in recent days as those early telltale signs of infection: a fever or a sore threat.
It’s going to get worse…and it’s going to spread.
Blink and you may have missed these first indicators, especially because these signs of retreat are being dressed up as proud programming announcements.
First on Monday, there was NBCUniversal slashing the volume of commercials it will run across many of its channels.
The pitch: advertisers can take advantage in fewer slots, which have fewer competing brands to compete with for attention.
The reality: There’s really no choice but to cut back on ad time at a time when there’s a massive marketer pullback in motion across all platforms under the dark cloud of the coronavirus crisis.
Then on Tuesday came CBS with the reintroduction of a Sunday night movie for five weeks.
The pitch: Enjoy family favorites like “Forrest Gump” and “Titanic” back in primetime just like they used to be decades ago.
The reality: The production shutdown means CBS is going to run out of primetime programming soon enough, so why not grab some titles from new sister company Paramount’s library?
By the way, NBCU also made the introduction of a “family movie night” part of its commercial-cutback announcement, though didn’t specify details. No matter what company you’re at, movies are an effective scheduling Band-Aid, blanketing multiple hours on the cheap. Given how depressed TV ratings are overall, how much worse can an old favorite like “Titanic” perform relative to a far more expensive sitcom?
The point here isn’t to pick on NBCU or ViacomCBS; we’re going to see Disney, AT&T, Fox and others follow them soon enough with stopgap measures of their own to patch up their own TV platforms to get through a horrific 2020.
Now you might be thinking, waitasec: Shouldn’t TV networks be benefiting from a fresh influx of viewership on account of a “shelter-at-home” captive audience that Nielsen correctly predicted would result in a ratings surge?
But the truth is all the extra eyeballs don’t matter much if an advertiser pullback prevents TV programmers from monetizing the ratings.
It only gets harder from here. Tonight TV loses one of its longest-running hits with ABC’s “Modern Family.” And from the looks of the staggering numbers Nielsen just reported for “Tiger King,” that audience influx may be headed for ad-free streaming options like Netflix.
Bright side amid all this gloom? If we start to see more programmers follow NBCU’s lead, linear TV needs to experiment more with reduced ad loads (and pray that marketers see the value in paying a premium for a less cluttered environment) to be a more attractive option to the Netflixes of the world. The best you can hope for in a tough time like this is the way it forces companies to take drastic measures it wouldn’t otherwise have the courage to try in more profitable times.