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Coronavirus Causes Networks to Scramble

The coronavirus crisis has basically blown up television. Countless series have had their seasons delayed or shelved altogether, and networks have had to get creative to keep viewers tuning in.

ABC saw The Bachelor Summer Games as counterprogramming to NBC’s 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The Olympics were pushed back a year. The Bachelor Summer Games was scrapped entirely.

AMC’s The Walking Dead: World Beyond was to begin April 12, but that’s been pushed back. Season four of FX hit Fargo was to start April 19, but that will not happen. A start date will be shared “once production resumes,” FX said.

I Know This Much Is True, with Mark Ruffalo playing identical twin brothers, was set to debut on HBO April 27. It will begin May 10.

Showtime will hold back the last four episodes of ‘Black Monday’ for later this year. 

Showtime will hold back the last four episodes of ‘Black Monday’ for later this year. 

Showtime’s Black Monday will pause after April 12, the final four episodes airing “later this year,” the network said. Billions will air seven episodes, beginning May 3, and the remainder later in the year.

Season three of Killing Eve, meanwhile, saw its start date on BBC America and AMC moved up two weeks, to April 12, as executives sensed that starting the season while many are stuck at home might help the program. “We know how adored this series is and we know how keen people are for great content right now,” Sarah Barnett, president of AMC Networks Entertainment Group and AMC Studios, said.

Filming on Eve was completed before coronavirus struck. The new start date caused some serious post-production hustle. “I’ve never encountered people working so hard and with such dedication to get something out,” said executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle.

ABC smash Grey’s Anatomy concludes season 16 on April 9 with 21 episodes, after initial plans called for 25 episodes.

To be sure, viewers are doing plenty of viewing. Nielsen said “staying put in our homes can lead to almost a 60% increase in the amount of content we watch.”

Overnight ratings have looked a bit like those from the pre-streaming era. On March 24, Ellen’s Game of Games ticked up 8% on NBC to 1.4 in viewers 18-49 and the This Is Us finale shot up 21% to 1.7. On CBS that night, NCIS went up 30% for a 1.3, FBI grew 38% to 1.1, and FBI: Most Wanted shot up 25% to 1.0.

“Self-isolation has returned TV to its heyday of having captive audiences hungry for content,” Civic Entertainment Group chief culture officer Linda Ong said. “It’s an excellent time for sampling and building loyalty — those offering free trial periods and sneak previews should do well.”

TV news is getting plenty of viewing, too. NBC News is airing live primetime specials about the coronavirus pandemic Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Those began March 31 and are scheduled for April 7 and April 14. On ABC, anchor David Muir has anchored a series of pandemic-focused 20/20 specials, the most recent one on March 30.

News analyst Andrew Tyndall mentioned “old-school reporting” on the broadcast networks amidst the pandemic — longer-form stories running 2 ½ to 3 minutes. “You might as well be watching Peter Jennings or Dan Rather,” he said.

With so many staffers working from home, the newscasts don’t have their usual polish. Tyndall said that lends the broadcasts a certain authenticity. “It’s really an opportunity to get people to sample,” he said of corona coverage, “and showcase what they can do.”

Cable news is enjoying increased viewership, too. CNN has seen a 151% increase in total day viewing March 9-29, compared to the prior four weeks. Fox News Channel called the first quarter the largest audience in network history in both total day and primetime. MSNBC set a primetime record for March, averating 2.7 million total viewers, up from 2.3 million in March 2019.

Christmas in March?

Networks are coming up with a wide variety of stunts in an effort to capture viewers with time on their hands. Starting March 26, PBS announced “American History Night with Ken Burns” on Thursday nights. With no baseball on TV, it also made Burns’s Baseball documentary available for streaming.

Syfy ran a Sharknado marathon April 5, and Hallmark Channel hosted its “Countdown to Christmas” marathon in late March. A Very Merry Mix-Up was one of the movies.

Michelle Vicary, executive VP, programming and network publicity, said viewers were looking for positive things amidst the crisis. “A lot of people are looking for feel-good programming on television — content that the whole family can enjoy together and that offers an escape of sorts,” she said.

The viewer response was “overwhelmingly positive,” Vicary said, making Hallmark the highest-rated and most-watched entertainment network on cable in prime among households, total viewers and women 18-plus across the two weekends.

Ong said creativity can come in handy. “Networks and platforms that rely heavily on original programming,” she said, “will have to get creative with stunts, acquisitions and library content in order to keep viewers’ attention.”