Slammed: The Latest on COVID-19 Disruption in TV Industry

From production delays to sports league suspensions, a tally of how the coronavirus is affecting the TV business so far
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The spread of the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the economy, as new cases continue to surface worldwide and in the United States, forcing some cities to ban gatherings of more than 50 people and businesses increasingly requiring employees to work from home. While more and more communities shut down restaurants and bars and urge people to keep at least a 6-foot distance from each other when venturing outside, the media business has responded quickly, postponing events, banning live studio audiences from show tapings, compressing pay TV windows for some movies, and expanding broadband offerings as consumers are increasingly confined to their homes.

So far, according to Johns Hopkins University, globally the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has ballooned to 207,518 worldwide (up from 120,000 just a week ago) and deaths have risen to 8,248. In the U.S., confirmed COVID-19 cases have more than tripled to nearly 6,000 with 107 deaths and the U.S. and Canada have agreed to close their 5,500-mile border to all unessential travel. 

Broadband

Cable operators and pay TV distributors across the country have stepped up to ensure that all residents have access to broadband, with most offering free high-speed internet service to non-customers with school-age children. CoxComcast, CharterAT&T and Altice USA all have announced programs aimed at broader broadband access, as have a large number of rural and small market operators.

Related: Residential Data Usage Soars Amid COVID-19 Social Distancing 

In addition to offering faster broadband speeds to low-income residents  Mediacom Communications chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso also is helping to raise money for hospitals in Florence, Italy -- home to his pro soccer team ACF Fiorentina -- starting a Go Fund Me to raise €500,000. Commisso’s family personally kicked in €250,000 to kickstart the effort. 

Many operators also have signed on to Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai’s Keep American Connected Pledge, vowing not to disconnect any broadband customer for non-payment issues associated with the outbreak, waive late fees and open WiFi hotspots to non customers. 

Pai also called for cable and broadcast distributors to call a truce to retransmission consent blackouts during the outbreak, and at least one dispute -- between Cox Media and Dish -- has been put on hold through the pandemic.

Related: BroadbandNow: Most Home Internet Connections Holding Up 

Sports

As fears mounted over large gatherings of people potentially accelerating the spread of the virus, sporting events began to feel the heat, with the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League suspending their seasons. Major League Soccer said it would suspend its season for 30 days because of the virus.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver made the decision to suspend league play on March 11, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (and later guard Donovan Mitchell) tested positive for COVID-19.

WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports carries NBA games on its TBS and TNT networks, and Turner Sports said it supports the NBA’s decision.

On March 12 the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided to cancel its Men’s and Women’s Division I Basketball Championships, also known as “March Madness,” a day after initially saying the tournaments would be held in empty arenas. After consulting with its membership — and after two major men’s basketball powerhouses, Duke University and the University of Kansas, suspended their athletic programs — the NCAA decided to throw in the towel. 

Related: Moody’s: Sports Cancellations Could Hurt Programmers 

CBS and Turner hold the television rights to the NCAA tournament, which was scheduled for March 19- April 8. In a joint statement, CBS and Turner said they support the group’s decision.

Golf fans also were disappointed after the PGA Tour canceled all of its tournaments leading up to and including The Masters golf tourney, which was originally scheduled for April 9-12. 

Other postponements include the Kentucky Derby and the French Open,  now scheduled for Sept 5 and Sept. 20, respectively. 

Major League Baseball on March 12 said it was cancelling Spring Training and would delay Opening Day dates for the regular season by at least two weeks. 

The NHL has 189 games remaining, including 10 scheduled for March 13. The regular season was scheduled to end April 4, with the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting the week of April 6.

WWE said it would relocate its April 5 WrestleMania 36 event from Tampa to an Orlando, Fla., facility without a live audience. 

A ban on gatherings and events of more than 250 people in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties in Washington state imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee meant that an XFL contest in Seattle between the Dragons and the Los Angeles Wildcats on March 14 also would be played without fans. Later, the XFL announced it too would suspend its regular season. 

The biggest question in sports remains whether the International Olympic Committee will postpone or cancel the Summer Olympic Games, scheduled for July in Tokyo, which has been hit hard by COVID-19. At press time, the IOC maintained the games will go ahead as planned, which should be good news for U.S. broadcast rightsholder Comcast NBCUniversal. Comcast has said that even if the Olympics were canceled, which some analysts predicted could result in as much as $1 billion in lost ad revenue over the two weeks of the Games, it has adequate insurance to protect the company.

On March 17, the International Olympic Committee said the Games are expected to go on as planned.

“The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive,” the IOC said in a statement.

Content

Some content produces have decided to collapse windows for movies in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, including NBCUniversal and Disney,

As theaters across the country are shutting their doors, NBCU said it would make some movies like The Hunt, The Invisible Man and Emma, available for rental on a number of on-demand services beginning March 20. Trolls World Tour, will stream on April 10, the day it was also set to debut in theaters.

Disney made its popular animated movie Frozen 2 available on its Disney + streaming service on March 15, about three months ahead of schedule.

At Warner Bros., Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is expected to be available on pay-per view on March 24. 

Production schedules for programming across the distribution spectrum have been postponed, with broadcasters and cable networks halting taping of live late night talk shows and scripted and unscripted shows.

The Walt Disney Co. said production on Grey’s Anatomy, Genius: Aretha and several other shows would be halted due to the outbreak. 

FX, another Disney property, said earlier that it would push back the premiere of season 4 of Fargo to April 19 because of production delays related to the coronavirus outbreak. 

Network upfronts have either been canceled or transformed to a digital format, including:

CBS: Originally scheduled for May 13 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, CBS said it would reschedule the event for a later date.

NBCUniversal: NBCU said it would cancel its upfront, opting to televise and stream its presentation for the 2020-2021 season “to ensure the safety of all participants while also reflecting the increasingly direct relationship between NBCUniversal, its fans and its partners.”

Fox: Fox joined the fray later in the day, announcing that it would cancel its upfront presentation originally scheduled for May 11.

The CW: CW also said it would cancel its live upfront in May, and was exploring alternative ways to present its lineup to advertisers.

Discovery Inc.: Canceled its live upfront, scheduled for May 12. 

The Walt Disney Co.: Disney announced on March 12 that it too would cancel the upfronts for its networks and streaming service Hulu.

AT&T’s WarnerMedia and its advanced advertising unit Xandr said they also would alter plans for the upfronts.

Other networks that postponed, canceled or modified upfront events include:

Fox News Channel canceled its live upfront in New York scheduled for March 24;

• Comcast postponed the March 12 upfront for its Freewheel cable network;

AMC Networks canceled its March 18 upfront presentation in New York.

A+E Networks said it would replace its live March 25 upfront meeting with a series of virtual presentations conducted on an agency-by-agency basis.

According to reports Universal Television put on hold several productions that haven’t started yet, like season 2 of Russian Doll (Netflix) and Little America (Apple) and season one of Rutherford Falls (Peacock).

Stock Market

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell into bear market territory March 11, ending an 11-year bull run as investors continued to panic over the pandemic. Since then the Dow has been on a rollercoaster -- dropping a record 3,000 points March 16, rising more than 1,000 points the next day (March 17) and dipping more than 1,900 points in afternoon trading March 18.

The market has erased the gains that began nearly four years ago with the beginning of the Trump administration. For cable, many stocks that saw record growth in 2019 -- like Comcast, Altice USA, Disney and Fox -- have retreated back to pre-2018 levels.

Disney, which has huge businesses in theme parks and cruise lines that have been shut down in the wake of the pandemic, saw its stock fall to $79.07 per share (down 15.5%) in early trading March 18, its lowest point in six years.

Industry Conferences

As fears that the ban on large gatherings will last long into the summer, many organizations are postponing industry get-togethers in the name of caution. On Wednesday (March 18)

The Cable Center said it decided to postpone its 23rd annual Cable Hall of Fame gala, originally scheduled for April 30 in New York, to sometime in the fall. The group said it would announce a firm date in the future. 

Earlier, the National Association of Broadcasters’ said it would postpone its April 18-22 NAB Show in Las Vegas, adding it is working on alternative dates for the conference.

The coronavirus has forced several smaller industry conferences and fundraisers scheduled for March to postpone their dates, including the ACA Connects policy summit, scheduled for March 17-19 in Washington, D.C.; the T. Howard Foundation’s annual fundraising dinner in New York on March 25; and the International Wireless Communications Expo, slated for March 30-April 3 in Las Vegas.

The LPTV Spectrum Rights Coalition also cancelled its annual event at the NAB Show in Las Vegas due to coronavirus concerns. The event, now in its seventh year, was scheduled for April 17.

MIPTV, the international TV conference that was scheduled to be held in Cannes, France March 30-April 2 has been canceled, as has the Google I/O Developers Conference set for May 12-14 in Mountain View Calif.

The Paley Center for Media also announced that it was postponing its PaleyFest event, scheduled for March 13-22 in Los Angeles, to a later date.

HBO said it would postpone its Night of Too Many Stars: America Unites for Autism Programs gala to a later date. 

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