TBI Weekly: How buyers are reacting to the Covid-19 crisis
All this week, TBI has been hearing from buyers around the world about the ramifications of Covid-19 on their acquisition strategies and scheduling conundrums. Here are five key takeaways.
With production halted on most shows, broadcasters have been trying to maximise programming they have in the can – with the UK’s ITV and the BBC two examples of organisations trying to eke out acquisitions and daily soaps. Showtime in the US has been forced to rejig the scheduling for some of its hit series – including Billions and The Chi – and RTÉ in Ireland has made similar moves.
Ratings driver Fair City has stopped production and been shifted to air twice weekly instead of four times, says Dermot Horan, director of acquisitions and co-productions. The plan is “to eke out” as many weeks as possible, he tells TBI, with a similar strategy employed for acquired series in order to “buy ourselves some time” until shows go back into production. Similarly, TVNZ has reduced the broadcast of flagship soap, Shortland Street, from five nights to three.
Quite how this plays out in the months to come remains to be seen: with shows being stretched over longer periods, broadcasters will need content to fill empty slots. Yet that will inevitably cost money – and in a market where the likes of ITV are slashing bonuses and cutting exec pay to deal with an advertising slump, the longer term impact looks likely to be great.
While producers and distributors have been quick to turn-around and market their Covid-19 themed shows, buyers appear more circumspect. “We are constantly monitoring all the ‘Corona programming’ on offer, but so far we haven’t acquired any,” says Anette Rømer, the outgoing head of acquisitions and formats at Denmark’s TV2.
Instead, the broadcaster is looking to its news department for bespoke coverage. “The pandemic is moving incredibly quickly and varies from country to country – as does the advice and coping strategies,” Rømer says.
Feel-good shows have understandably become a key focus for programme purveyors, keen to offer audiences some form of escapism. Cate Slater, director of content at Television New Zealand (TVNZ), adds that her broadcaster is also looking for high-impact second window drama for its VOD service TVNZ OnDemand, as well as library content to fill schedule holes due to production shutdowns.
RTÉ is doing likewise. “There are a lot of more mature people who are stuck at home and are obviously extremely nervous, because they’re in a vulnerable age group or they may have underlying health issues,” says Horan. “As well as looking at the news, we have put in a lot of classic matinees into the weekend schedule, like Spartacus, Dr Zhivago and The Magnificent Seven.
“We’re trying to put in films that will help people escape and escape back into their youth. Those kind of titles have a real value at this time.”
Horan, who is also VP of the European Broadcasting Union’s TV Committee, says his counterparts across the continent are all “faring pretty much” in the same way. “My colleagues in other acquisition departments are beginning to look at material made in recent years that perhaps for one reason or another they weren’t able to pick up [but will do so now],” he adds.
Fair play on pricing
IP rights holders seem to be playing fair on pricing however, despite the surging demand for library content. But there could be a lag effect – Rømer points out that at present, it has been largely “business as usual” in Denmark.
“The majority of deals over the past two weeks were already in negotiation, while current acquisitions are for shows that meet our ongoing programme needs. That might change during the next months but as of now it is business as usual regarding the need for acquisition,” she tells TBI. Schedule gaps may appear later in the year, Romer says, but to date TV2 has been able to use re-runs of local programming alongside the acquisition of “strong Danish film titles.”
For Slater in New Zealand, it’s a similar picture on the cost front. “What we’re seeing in the open market are distributors looking to move library programming or unsold content previously rejected in this territory. We’re not seeing increased demand or rate increases at this point,” Slater says.
Production dilemmas, launch delays & development
When it comes to programmes in production, the scene in Denmark mirrors that reflected globally. “All live shows are halted – The X Factor, which was coming towards its climax, is a big challenge – and regrettably we’ve had to postpone various new productions, most notably The Bachelor, which was due to start filming now for a summer transmission,” continues Rømer, adding: “This was part of a major strategy to strengthen our AVOD service TV2 Play.”
Rømer has also had to contend with turning its Sport X network into a film channel, due to the lack of live sports, while RTÉ has attempted to keep its entertainment show The Late Late Show on air without audiences or live bands. “But they’ve kept going,” says Horan, “they have changed their focus and are much more about dealing with the crisis. It started with people showing how to properly wash your hands and in time we’re going to celebrate the heroic health workers.”
Drama has of course been badly hit with ‘social distancing’ measures but there have been differing views on development. Some are concerned at a decline amid the current restrictions and the impact on keeping the process moving, but others say development is continuing at a similar pace and there is hope that once the lockdown is over, lost ground could be made up.
“Due to extended pre-production and development timelines, we expect that we and our independent production companies will be extremely well prepared and able to hit the ground running as soon as restrictions are lifted,” says Slater at TVNZ. “We’ve also found that crisis unlocks creativity, and we’re not short of innovative and interesting ideas being pitched to us at the moment.”
Bulking up & cementing trust
Where streamers might be reaping the benefits in sheer numbers – Netflix and YouTube are among the early winners on that front – broadcasters are cementing their place as a trusted source of news and current affairs programming.
“Our news service is considered an essential service – we’re a lifeline utility for New Zealanders – so can continue while we’re in lockdown,” says Slater. “However, we’ve had to make big changes to ensure continuity of our in-house news production over this time, including split production and presenting teams. This ensures that if someone becomes ill, we won’t need to close our entire news operation.”
The view from Denmark is similar. “I firmly believe this crisis has been a great advert for the position of linear television at the heart of family life,” Rømer tells TBI. “We provide isolated people with a companion that provides both entertainment and reassurance. We provide viewers with the latest medical advice – advice that they can trust.”
“The immediate impact [of Covid-19] for a public broadcaster such as RTÉ is that you suddenly have this huge responsibility to get the information to the public,” adds Horan. This bears out, he says, in the increased demand for news and current affairs programming. “We have seen extraordinarily high audiences for our news summaries and people who don’t normally watch the news – the under-35s, the under-45s – watching in enormous numbers.”
And it’s not just current affairs and news. US cable giant HBO’s move came in the form of an unprecedented 500-hours of shows including The Wire and The Sopranos being made available for free to viewers. On the other side of the world, Kiwi broadcaster TVNZ – like RTÉ, the BBC, TV2 and many others – tells TBI the focus is on bolstering both educational and entertainment content for kids and families across its channels and VOD service.
She adds: “The situation has created a greater sense of focus on critical matters, such as maintaining our core operations and safeguarding our news production, and prioritising the content that matters most to our viewers at this time.”