The Year that Sports, Entertainment, & Streaming Saved Television

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

During 2020, studios and streamers moved to a direct-to-streaming model or combo model (streaming and shortened theatrical window release) depending on the locale because theater goers were refused from attending films in-person.  The theaters were mostly closed.  Similarly, sports venues were closed and fans watched from afar on a screen. 

History shows that studios were already moving towards streaming based on the mergers between content studios and tech distribution platforms in Hollywood and beyond.  Cable cord cutting has been on the rise for several years now.  The pandemic only encouraged the change to streaming more rapidly. 

In media and sports, the move to streaming was a little bit slower with CNN just announcing this week its new platform, CNN+, which will act like Fox Nation that was launched in 2009, but as a streaming application and platform in 2018.  With so many sports fans watching from home (more than that attend games before, during, and after 2020), it made sense to move to a streaming model.  In fact, it is live sports and news that is keeping cable packages alive through paying customers.  Arguably, the popularity of live sports and news on cable networks is what kept them from innovating sooner to a streaming model. 

Going forward, it seems that a hybrid model will continue to be offered with streaming and cable options.  In film, theater owners and the National Association of Theater Owners (“NATO”) have expressed concern and displeasure with the hybrid model that shortens the theatrical window because it reduces the theater-going experience and profits courtesy of ticket sales and concessions.  However, studios and talent are under pressure to meet the consumer where they are at, which is on the individual screen, not a community one. 

Sports have continued their push into streaming through NBC’s Peacock, Amazon, ESPN+, and others.  Even Apple is considering purchasing Sunday Night Football rights.  Smartly, the NFL and other professional sports leagues have capitalized on splitting up rights to broadcast games by delivery model (broadcast vs. streaming vs. social media platforms).  The result is more fees collected across many distribution platforms and reaching more fans. 

As a matter of fact, the top five most-watched primetime programs in 2020 were sports related, specifically NFL games.  The rest of the top ten were also NFL games except three, the Oscars, the College Football Championship, and “The Masked Singer”, which followed the Super Bowl broadcast.  Historically, the power of sports viewership is not surprising as twenty-nine of the thirty (29/30) most-watched television broadcasts are Super Bowl games.  The three most watched television series in the United States are NFL game packages—on three different networks (NBC, FOX, and ESPN/Disney), while number six on the list is Amazon-streamed Thursday Night Football.  In 2016 (four years before streaming had become more mainstream), professional sports across the world streamed to ten billion people—meaning fans watched more than one sport, but it represents an astronomical number that is more than the world’s current population of 7.8 billion people.   

Sports continue to push into entertainment content with documentaries and reality television, which will continue the increase content consumption.  With consumers continuing to cut their cable cords, studios, networks, and distributors would be wise to match customer habit by increasing viewing options on multiple platforms.  Consumer choice has always led to better business and in 2020-2021 sports and entertainment programming saved television and kept a lot of people entertained, whilst having their schedules changed with increasing work-from-home options.   

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