Media in a Time of Massive Change: A Roundtable Discussion

media and entertainment roundtable

The media and sports worlds have been in a tumult, with people cutting cables, switching to streaming, puzzling over bundling, and being confused by what is linear and what is not. It has been chaos.

And then COVID-19 hit.

Entertainment industry production halted, movie theaters shuttered, and sports stopped. Then sports restarted and largely ended up limping off the field.

The world of media lives in interesting times.

In this environment, we convened a roundtable of insights professionals from a variety of outlets. Cable networks, SVOD streamers, and telecommunications conglomerates were all represented.

Each had their own take on the current climate. But everyone agrees there is no new normal yet, nor is its arrival imminent.

When COVID Hit

In Sharknado, tornados collide with swarms of sharks. Chaos ensues. It’s an apt metaphor for what happened in the world of media when COVID-19 hit.

In this tumult, people turned hopefully to their insights partners for a glimpse of the future. Management needed to know “everything” all at once. “What the hell is going on?” was the essential question of the day. Then it became “when will it be normal again?” And then uncertainty became the status quo.

Being in insights in media is like shooting rapids. The turbulence is predictably unpredictable, and there is danger at every turn. Questions proliferate, but answers are elusive.

“What is this reality that we live in? What does it look like? And how do we keep advertisers spending their dollars with us?” These are the questions that rule the day. “It was a crisis, and now it’s a reality,” a participant explained.

Enduring Forces

As much as there was a discussion of change and uncertainty, there was a consensus that basic forces remain. Even as much as moviegoing has been halted or altered, there is an expectation that it will not go away. Movies might need to be streamed for now because “you can only push a movie for so long before you need to release it.” But the expectation is that moviegoing will bounce back—eventually. It may come back in a different form, with more emphasis on food and drink and other entertainments but “people will always want to go out.”

Sports are currently one of the only things keeping people tethered to cable, though many are adopting live tv streaming services like Hulu Live TV or switching to sports streaming services like NHL Network, NFL Network, and NBA League Pass. But even with sports fans at their most captive—home and sequestered—interest in sports faltered.

“Since each restarted play, the NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, Major League Baseball regular season and playoffs, United States Open tennis, United States Open golf, PGA Tour, Premier League, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and college football have all had rating declines of at least 25 percent compared with 2019”, said the New York Times.

Still, it is expected that professional and college sports too will endure. “You only need to look at the Coliseum in Rome to know that sports will always be with us,” a participant explained. “Live sports,” it was suggested, “has gone through worse than this, and they’ll find ways. It’ll evolve.”

Building Better Bundles

With a plethora of new ways of accessing content and with different providers each delivering unique content, there was much discussion around a big unknown: what combination of offers will people settle on? Consumers are asking themselves “What can I afford? What is different? What do I need?” Right now, it feels like we’re in the midst of a game of musical chairs. When the music stops, not all the offers currently available will find a seat.

Linear viewing is expected to be amongst the first to find itself without a chair. It was suggested that “live streaming is a stop on the way to no live linear at all.” And while executives are wistfully asking “how do you get them back to linear?” The reality is “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle and get people back.” One person wondered “given the behaviors of Gen Z and the Alpha generation, is live TV going to be important at all in 20 years?”

While no one was clear on exactly what the future will look like, there is an expectation that bundling and smarter service offers will be part of it. Right now, there is a lot of fluidity as people experience trial offers, experiment with cutting the cable, and explore the combinations that work for them. But there is a feeling that this is kind of a “dating” phase, and that things will settle into more permanent configurations.

A participant suggested that “someone will figure out how to bundle them properly and in a way that makes sense.” “That gives an advantage to bigger companies with bundles,” another commented. “There is power in that versus the stand-alone.”

Certain Uncertainty

The changing nature of the market, combined with the pandemic, has made long-range planning a challenge, if not an impossibility. In a world where, as one person puts it, “senior executives are trying to figure out what to do to keep their jobs a month out” it is hard to plan for the future. One person at a publicly-traded company said they had to do long-range planning because they “have to have something to present to the Board” but noted that the forecasts are “never that on-the-money.” Another said their long-range planning was scenario planning. They are thinking about “what happens in best and worst cases” and asking, “what does that look like for each of our businesses?”

Given all the changes the media market has seen, the only certainty is uncertainty. As one participant warned, “don’t try too hard to predict the future, because you’ll end up chasing your tail.”

Truly, the world of media lives in interesting times.

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