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After years of ‘too much TV,’ the pandemic means there’s now barely enough

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The competition for screen time seems greater than ever these days. In addition to the persistent impulse to scroll through Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube on our phones, the battleground also includes larger displays as television networks duke it out with an increasing glut of streaming services, seemingly equipped with a never-ending pipeline of new shows.

But after nearly six months of COVID-19 production delays, traditional broadcast networks are finding there’s barely enough fresh programming to fill their fall schedules. Streaming companies, for all their back catalogs of on-demand content, aren’t in a much better position—they also film original productions. Anything new and enticing to viewers will be in high demand, and competition to license it will be fierce.

“Production got completely screwed up for four to five months, and even now production is slow because they’re filming with crazy [strict] safety protocols,” says Michael Pachter, a media analyst at Wedbush Securities. “All of these shows are still out of production, and [networks and streaming companies] are desperate. It’s hard finding shows. Everybody has the same problem.”

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The likes of CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox have been forced to get a little creative ahead of the fall TV lineup that traditionally rolls out with debut series and returning favorites. CBS, unable to complete filming of stalwarts like NCIS and Survivor, has opted to import the first season of Star Trek: Discovery that debuted on the network’s streaming service, CBS All Access, in 2017. NBC switched American Ninja Warrior into The Voice‘s time slot after deeming the latter wouldn’t finish production in time. The CW announced its popular series Riverdale would be delayed until at least January of next year.

With a lack of scripted content finished on time, reality television and acquisitions of already produced international shows have been used to fill the gap. NBC, unable to resume production of the third season of medical drama New Amsterdam, has instead brought on the Canadian medical drama Transplant, which it acquired in May. The lead-in ahead of its 10 p.m. air time? Two hours of America’s Got Talent, which was extended through September because of pandemic production issues.

Streaming companies are also employing similar strategies. In the U.K., Netflix is outbidding the country’s traditional broadcast networks, leaving them in flux when it comes to filling their own programming schedules. “I know a lot of people who work for streamers in acquisitions, and they are buying everything,” John McVay, head of the trade body Pact, which represents the U.K.’s independent television production companies, told the Guardian.

The pandemic’s forced stay-at-home orders was a huge boon to Netflix, adding 26 million global subscribers in the first half of this year, compared to 12 million during the same period last year. But Netflix’s massive growth, along with its subsequent acquisitions, isn’t just a sign of strength—it also represents some vulnerability, analysts say.

“They have a monster they have to feed now,” says Eric Schmitt, a media analyst at Gartner. “They have no choice but to keep feeding that machine, and if that means paying above the market price of content to keep users happy and keep it out of the hands of competitors, it’s really only the choice they have at this point.”

For all of Netflix’s deep library of content, the company—which operates just as much a prolific production company as a streaming service—has also had to halt or slow down production on new original series, though it has been able to keep premiering a number of them in the midst of the pandemic. And unlike newer streaming competitors like Disney+, HBO Max, or NBCUniversal’s Peacock, Netflix no longer has as stacked of a roster of beloved licensed shows that users continually watch again and again (think The Office or Friends).

“They have to license content created before 2011, their first year with original content, while the other guys own it,” Pachter said, adding that he’s currently enjoying older hits like HBO’s Deadwood, BBC’s Extras, and the original British version of The Office. “Netflix has to pay for all of this, while the other guys presumably have a library that includes [The Dick Van Dyke Show]. If you haven’t seen these old shows, they’re new to you.”

That means Netflix’s strategy of acquiring shows that have yet to premiere in the U.S. will likely continue in the short to medium term. But it won’t be the only one in times of desperation due to the pandemic, as NBC’s acquisition of Transplant shows.

Networks and streamers alike may get more creative with their programming, relying more on animation and user-generated content—like web series on YouTube.

“I think this is going to spur a lot of innovation on the content side,” said Gartner’s Schmitt. “More reality shows, more animation, more things that can be done with lower production costs. You can’t overlook the farm system that YouTube is building for content. TV people for years turned their heads and said it’s not a real thing. But hey, it’s people viewing things on the screen.”

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