In this piece, we explore the ways in which the pandemic has impacted on TV schedules and VOD releases, look into how broadcasters and streaming services have adapted, and lastly, share thoughts on what this could mean for 2021.

How has the pandemic impacted TV schedules and VOD releases?

Peaky Blinders, Call the Midwife, Love Island… The list of shows delayed or cancelled due to COVID-19 in 2020 makes for fairly grim reading. This is especially the case as we move from autumn to winter, which is traditionally a high point of the year for quality TV content. With estimates that up to 60% of scripted television shows have been delayed or cancelled worldwide, people began to consider a previously unimaginable question as we live through the ‘golden age of TV’: might we run out of new TV shows to watch?!

The number of repeats on broadcast TV over the summer months as a result of disruption to the production schedule was noticeable. With no end to the pandemic in-sight, at times it appeared that broadcasters were struggling to fill the schedule. Initially, the most glaring and well-reported omissions were the soaps and live sport – both constant companions for many. As the year progressed, it felt like there was a steady reduction in new content across more genres too. 

This was made all the more stark by the steady stream of content that continued to emerge on SVOD platforms, and which dominated Zoom conversations across the country. To name a few, Tiger King, The Last Dance and Too Hot To Handle kept Netflix users entertained, while Disney+ entered the market and brought an unrivalled library of comforting and nostalgic content, alongside flagship original content (like Hamilton – brought forward by a year – and The Mandalorian). The SVOD market had a ready catalogue of new content to keep people going through the hard times alongside their vast library of older content.

Summer was a difficult period for linear broadcasting; however, fast-forward to Autumn and the picture was far more positive. Many productions have restarted (cue photos of AC-12 in face masks) and audiences are able to skip between watching Strictly Come Dancing on BBC, I’m a Celeb on ITV or The Great British Bake Off on Channel 4. 

So what did broadcasters and streaming services do to respond to the challenge of this year?

As the UK went into lockdown 1.0, broadcasters had to review their content strategy; how much did they have in the pipeline, how was its future content going to be affected, and how long could they last before ‘running out’? This led to difficult decisions, such as cutting back the number of soap episodes a week to help get us through H1, and relying on repeats of familiar and classic content more than usual. 

Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of content the pandemic had people yearning for. Turning to familiar or nostalgic content in response to a crisis is a well-established trend and one that has seen reruns of Battlestar Galactica, Gavin & Stacey and French and Saunders; in uncertain and worrying times, these shows provide comfort and positivity. It’s also what motivated thousands of households to turn to the warm embrace of Disney+. Netflix have also got in on the action, steadily acquiring a growing library of classics like Fawlty Towers, Only Fools & Horses and Peep Show – savvily, it knows its success is not totally down to its high intensity and glossy Originals, but good old fashioned ‘telly’ too. 

But it hasn’t just been repeats of shows that have entertained us; this year has also seen broadcasters and SVOD services pull together reunions of much-loved shows. HBO Max featured a special of The West Wing, reuniting its cast, and the upcoming Christmas schedule includes an exciting SMTV Live reunion and Strictly ‘Christmas Countdown’. ‘Reunions’ and ‘reflectives’ have been an extra lifeline for broadcasters, giving them the opportunity to reuse and revisit existing content which is both cheaper to make and logistically much easier to produce in the current environment.

The autumn and winter schedule is a highlight of the broadcast calendar (and where most of the advertising revenue is made) and so their priority will have been to work towards as strong a schedule as possible. While they may have conceded ground to the streaming services earlier in the year, there has been a monumental effort to continue with broadcasters’ staples as we headed into September. Extreme measures have been taken to ensure we’re treated to the likes of Gogglebox, Strictly, Bake Off and I’m a Celeb – and happily, with record viewing figures, despite starting a little later than usual

We’ve also been able to enjoy an impressive array of drama – albeit slightly lower in volume than previous years. Des, Us, Honour and most recently His Dark Materials and The Undoing have hooked thousands across the UK, filling the darkening evenings with excitement and giving us something to talk about other than Covid! This year we feel especially grateful for the quality drama that our broadcasters share with us. 

What does this all mean for 2021?

Despite the immeasurable challenges faced in 2020, the outlook for TV production in 2021 certainly isn’t doom and gloom. As mentioned, many productions are now up and running, and the start of the year will see the return of favourites like Line of Duty, Peaky Blinders and Doctor Who later in the year (the last of which will have a truncated running, 3 episodes fewer than usual to compensate for the slower filming due to stringent health and safety protocols). As the year progresses, we’d expect linear scheduling to largely return to normal, especially with the positive news regarding a Covid vaccine. 

Nevertheless, a return to near-normality is unlikely to cool the competition faced by SVOD and online services, which will continue to intensify. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos recently claimed Netflix production was “nearly fully operational in most parts of the world”, and doesn’t expect the pandemic to have a significant impact on their release schedule for 2021. An additional concern for UK broadcasters is Netflix’s increasing focus on British productions; it recently announced it would double its UK production budget to $1 billion, (which is equal to BBC One’s budget). As TV production ramps up again, it’s likely that the top end talent both on-screen and off-screen is going to be in huge demand and will come with a premium price tag. The cost of recruiting top talent could soon become prohibitively expensive for all but the biggest budgets.

It’s also worth considering that as 2021 progresses and life slowly returns to normal, TV and SVOD won’t just be competing against each other for share of attention,  but also with all the other activities which will return. As we start to experience (the now novel!) going out, socialising, play and going to sports and other events, time spent watching content could see a drop. 

2021 will prove to be a fascinating year as a new normal is established with regards to TV and SVOD, whatever that new normal may be.