TV Screen Shifts From Diversion to Lifeline

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman introduced short-form streamer Quibi to much fanfare at CES last January, but it couldn’t survive 2020. (Image credit:

Any early prognostications about what television might look like in 2020 were rendered irrelevant by March, as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic swept away any sense of normalcy with regard to viewers’ relationship with the screen. 

Once a passive form of entertainment and escape from life, the television, computer and mobile screen became our main connection to those around us as the pandemic forced many of us inside our homes for much of the year.

As many companies took to apps like Zoom to conduct business virtually, the pandemic shut down most TV show production for the spring and summer, leaving major holes in the programming lineups of networks and streaming services. Programmers were left to schedule marathons of older shows as well as movies to fill in for original series that had not finished their episode allotments.

Big Year for News Nets

Add to that the explosion of protests against social injustice around the country in response to the May killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers — as well as the buildup to the November presidential election — and viewers flocked to the cable news networks, led by Fox News Channel. Viewers tuned into Fox News, MSNBC and CNN in record numbers in November to follow the election and its aftermath, according to Nielsen.  

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Viewers also turned to the web, where new streaming services from WarnerMedia (HBO Max) and NBCUniversal (Peacock) joined The Walt Disney Co. (Disney Plus) and industry veterans Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and CBS All Access in what industry observers have dubbed the “streaming wars.” Next month, Discovery will join the fray with its own direct-to-consumer service, Discovery Plus. 

Not all new streaming services survived the year. Quibi — led by movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman — folded shop Dec. 1, about eight months after its much-anticipated launch, due its inability to sign up enough subscribers to match lofty company expectations.

Day-and-Date Arrives

The pandemic also shut down most movie theaters, forcing some studios to turn to the streaming services to offer their major new releases at the same time as they hit the big screen. The unprecedented day-and-date scenario was cheered by viewers who can now see big ticket films like Disney’s Mulan, which premiered on Disney Plus on Sept. 4 after being pulled from its scheduled March theatrical release, as well as Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984 and Pixar’s Soul (both set to debut this Christmas on HBO Max and Disney Plus, respectively.) While the move has been welcomed by viewers it’s been panned by theater owners who believe it will inevitably hurt ticket sales once cinemas are allowed to open again. 

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Warner Bros. has upped the ante going into 2021 by announcing it will debut its full 17-movie theatrical lineup — including such movies as Matrix 4, a Suicide Squad sequel and Godzilla vs. Kong — on HBO Max a day-and-date basis.

“After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said in a statement. “Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.” 

Sports Interrupted

No content category was challenged more by the pandemic than live sports programming. When sports leagues suspended their schedules in March, it first created a void, then play resumed amid unprecedented scheduling issues. The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League completed their regular seasons in late summer and early fall, alongside Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer. 

When live professional sports events returned, so did viewers. Individual ratings for the Stanley Cup Finals, NBA Finals and the World Series fell short from the year-ago numbers, but industry observers said the cumulative audience for sports content this fall bodes well for the leagues when those events return to their traditional seasons.

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“Overall, sports viewership has gone up in terms of the amount of hours people are watching sports, along with the digital consumption of sports content which went up substantially [in October],” said TV sports consultant Lee Berke. “Once everything gets back in a pattern, I’m not foreseeing much of an issue.”

The pandemic didn’t curtail interest in the pay-per-view event category as several 2020 boxing and mixed martial arts events drew buy figures above expectations. Two events, May’s UFC 251 and this past November’s Mike Tyson-Roy Jones Jr. boxing exhibition fight, reportedly drew more than 1 million PPV buys — the category’s gold standard — in the midst of the pandemic.

Look for both traditional PPV distributors like In Demand and streaming sports services such as ESPN Plus and FITE to offer sports fans a significant number of quality PPV sports events as fans ante up for content they want to see. All-time pay-per-view boxing champion Floyd Mayweather will test the appeal of an all-digital PPV event in February when he fights YouTube star Logan Paul. 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.