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COVID-19 Has Changed The Media Landscape—Maybe Forever

Things were normal. Then they weren’t.

Over the course of several days, the COVID-19 pandemic went from something most Americans were vaguely familiar with to changing life as we knew it. With this disruption—schools and businesses closed, stay-at-home orders in place—several unanticipated trends and behaviors developed, including media consumption habits and their impact on paid advertising. Below we’ll take a look at some initial observations across various media channels and consider future implications.

TV

What’s happened? People are watching a lot more of it. Whether it’s traditional linear TV or streaming services through a connected device, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that with most of the country at home all day the TV’s been getting more of a workout. While overall viewership is up, there are some areas worth calling out further:

  • The most significant viewership gains have been in news programming, and they’re happening across the board—in national network news, local news and cable news networks.
  • In primetime, many programs saw their highest audience counts of the year during the first weeks of COVID, and daily PUT (People Using Television) levels have been up in the daypart.
  • The loss of live sports—the most reliable TV ratings generator over the years—has had an interesting impact. It’s impossible to replace the viewers (and revenue) that March Madness, the Masters and NBA playoffs would have garnered, and without sports, the ratings on ESPN have taken a hit. But the absence of sports has created pent-up interest in programming when it is there—the 2020 NFL Draft’s three-day event attracted its most viewers ever, and ESPN’s “The Last Dance” was the highest-rated original series for the network in more than 15 years.
  • More time at home means more baking and cooking, more organizing and more household projects—and more eyeballs on the cable networks with programming that aligns (like HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Cooking Channel and DIY Network).
  • There has been a surge in viewership of streaming content through smart TVs or connected devices, as 34% of people say they’re consuming up to nine more hours per week than usual during the pandemic.
  • TV/movie streaming services top the list of paid subscriptions that Americans have considered adding since the outbreak, with Netflix showing the highest consideration (19%), followed by Disney+ (14%) and Amazon Prime Video (11%).

What’s this mean for advertisers? It’s a favorable time to be on the air if it makes sense from a business and messaging perspective. Closures, cancellations and general economic uncertainty have caused many advertisers to cancel or postpone campaigns, creating open inventory and a soft marketplace. Combine the strong ratings with lower demand and it’s an advantageous time to be buying linear TV.

While OTT/CTV consumption has increased, this does not necessarily indicate the ability of marketers to reach audiences has kept pace, as many consumers are more willing to pay for ad-free subscription services. Despite this, there is still a greater audience to be reached via ad-supported services, but advertisers should consider diversifying the mix across platforms to maximize audience potential.

Looking ahead. There is plenty of uncertainty around what is even going to be on TV. Will sports be back? The NFL released its schedule, but whether the games get played is still unknown. Events and leagues that were canceled haven’t established when they will be coming back. Whenever sports do return, expect huge interest and viewership. In terms of original content, studios have shut down production and we don’t know when that will pick back up, so there’s a good chance TV’s fall lineup could be slimmer than usual. News programming will be there, and with the presidential election in November it should continue to be a strong ratings generator—despite the possibility of news fatigue setting in.

Streaming services should continue to benefit and garner more subscriptions, especially if linear TV programming options are limited. If out-of-home entertainment options—movies, concerts, sporting events, etc.—still aren’t viable, it will be easier to justify the investment in subscriptions and movies-on-demand as a replacement.

Out of Home

What’s happened? Pretty straightforward here: Stay-at-home orders across much of the country mean fewer people on the road, using public transportation and in airports—which means fewer eyeballs on OOH ads. Those who are on the road are traveling shorter distances per day with fewer places to go.

What’s this mean for advertisers? With most events canceled and businesses temporarily shuttering, core advertisers who traditionally utilize OOH are cutting it altogether because they have nothing to actively promote. Those advertisers that do have messages to promote are shifting to other channels, as the dip in outdoor impressions may not justify the investment despite many OOH companies offering more flexible rates in the short term.

Reduced average daily travel distance suggests people are staying close to home, using secondary roads and perhaps limiting their travels to essential businesses. Identifying some landmarks—grocery, medical facilities, hardware stores—and utilizing street-level posters in the vicinity could be a more effective use of OOH at the moment. The fluidity of the situation could also make digital placements more appealing, as they provide the opportunity to adjust messaging on the fly.

Looking ahead. Recent trends suggest there is appetite for people to get out more, as road traffic is up since the early days of COVID. As businesses are phased back in, traffic should continue its ascension to some degree, but when that traffic will return to pre-pandemic figures—if ever—is an unknown.

The disruption of the daily commute will impact placements on roadside billboards and public transportation, and uncertainty around mass gatherings will play a significant role in the effectiveness and usage of placements at airports, stadiums/arenas and movie theaters. It may take some time for OOH to return to form as a dominant reach and frequency medium.

Radio

What’s happened? Overall listening has been anywhere from flat to up, but it’s how consumers listen that has changed. With stay-at-home orders in place and people working remotely, drive-time radio in the car has decreased with 32% of people saying they spend less time listening in their vehicle. However, many of those listeners have shifted to listening through their computer, mobile device or smart speakers, with all channels seeing gains. Radio has long been considered “comfort food” for listeners—a part of their routine, hearing the same personalities each day—and they are finding ways to keep that aspect of their routines intact.

What’s this mean for advertisers? Like most media, the economy has impacted radio advertiser demand and softened inventory availability. While rates are favorable for over-the-air radio, streaming options should be considered to maximize audience reach.

Looking ahead. Expect the behaviors adopted over the past few months to stick around. More consumers have taken steps to change how they listen and will likely continue to do so. But when stay-at-home orders are lifted, this could mean more incremental listening—instead of only tuning in during the 20-minute office commute, consumers might now start listening on their smart speaker before leaving their home and/or continuing on their computer or mobile device in the office.

Print

What’s happened? 12% of Americans say they are consuming more print media during the pandemic. While still an increase, it has not had the same surge as other media, and there are logistical roadblocks that make significant growth impossible. Circulation is limited to begin with, and there are myriads of news options available to consumers online. Outside of subscriptions, newspapers are not readily accessible for in-home consumption in a printed format—people who don’t have the paper delivered would have to leave their home to buy a copy. The pandemic has disrupted print media in other ways, causing issue lapses, magazine combinations and closures of some publications.

What’s this mean for advertisers? Newspapers have made COVID-19 their focus, and many have created content hubs or special sections strictly around the virus, giving a platform for brands to align relevant messaging with trustworthy news content. Many publications have offered discounts, bonus placements or packages in response to the economic uncertainties many advertisers face. Something else to consider is where pieces are distributed, as publications with a higher circulation delivered to homes are going to have a higher penetration than those distributed to offices and public locations.

Looking ahead. A positive sign for print is that 65% of millennials and 58% of Gen X audiences who increased consumption during the pandemic say they will continue to do so. But for many publications, it will not be enough to prevent more closures or reductions.

Online

What’s happened? People are spending more time in the digital space—on social media, adopting new technology and with online press. While “more free time” is driving overall media consumption increases, there are common behaviors contributing to spikes online:

  • NewsAs a result of the outbreak, 48% say they are reading more news stories on social media and 68% say they are searching for coronavirus updates. Online extensions of print media have also had significant gains, with daily visits and page views doubling from pre-pandemic traffic on many sites.
  • Connecting49% of Americans say they are using social media to keep in touch with friends more during the pandemic, with Facebook being the top platform overall, and Instagram neck-and-neck among the Gen Z demo. Apps and services like Google Hangouts, Zoom and Microsoft Teams have seen significant usage across all age groups.
  • EscapePeople are spending more time online with entertainment content as a means of escape. In addition to OTT/CTV streaming, Americans are watching more online videos, streaming more music and playing more video games. TikTok saw a significant spike in downloads during the month of March, up 27% from February. Not only are people consuming content, but they are creating it as well.

What’s this mean for advertisers? Despite higher engagement and usage, overall ad spending has decreased across all digital formats (paid search -25%; paid social -28%; digital video -32%; digital display -34%; digital audio -35%). With less inventory demand, digital advertising costs have declined significantly—especially on DSPs with real-time bidding. On Facebook and Instagram, CPMs at the end of March were as much as 50% below pre-pandemic figures.

Some advertisers have taken advantage of the cost benefits and increased their digital advertising presence, incorporating messaging and products relevant to the current situation. Others have decided to steer clear of COVID-19 content altogether, choosing not to affiliate their brand with the deflating subject, “take sides” in arguments or be aligned with possible misinformation / fake news.

Looking ahead. Digital media use will continue its upward trajectory, perhaps even more sharply in some areas. COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of new behaviors, apps and technology that will become more common—things like video conferencing, online delivery services, new social media platforms and streaming services. Online video is expected to have the greatest staying power, as 76% of Americans say they will continue to consume as much content after the pandemic. But while the overall digital audience will expand and create more unique opportunities, it’s worth noting that with media consumption already so fragmented, these new behaviors could create additional challenges when it comes to reaching concentrated audiences.

COVID-19’s impact on media consumption has already been felt across all media channels. Marketers need to constantly monitor these audience behaviors and determine which habits were temporary adjustments and which ones could last well into the future. Like everything these days, it’s fluid.