TV Industry Faces Billions in Lost Ads During Sports Hiatus


(Bloomberg) -- TNT will air old NBA Games. ESPN will broadcast news. CBS is running extra episodes of “Young Sheldon,” “Hawaii Five-0” and “Tommy.” None of it will make up for the loss of televised sports.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, TV networks are scrambling to fill their airwaves. Fear of spreading the disease has led to the suspension or cancellation of several major sporting events, including March Madness and games from the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

Those events were expected to fill prime-time slots across several networks for weeks to come, and the cancellations will cost the media industry billions of dollars in lost advertising sales. March Madness, the NBA playoffs and NHL playoffs together generated more than $2 billion in advertising last year, according to Kantar Media.

Replacement programming won’t come close.

“We’re likely to see one of the greatest downdrafts in advertising we’ve ever seen in this country,” said Rich Greenfield, an analyst with LightShed Partners.

The sudden cancellation of the events caught TV industry executives off guard. On Wednesday, the NBA was moving toward playing games in empty stadiums -- letting the broadcasts continue. But after a player tested positive for coronavirus, the league suspended its season altogether. The NHL and NCAA followed suit less than 24 hours later. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, pushed back the start of its season by at least two weeks.

TV executives met Thursday to discuss what to put on the air that evening. No decisions had been made about what to air in the weeks ahead, according to representatives for several networks.

Sporting events are the most watched events on TV, and both March Madness and the NBA playoffs attract tens of millions of viewers.

Streaming Threat

But viewership of live entertainment programming has already been in decline for years, hurt by people shifting to streaming services from Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Sensing an opportunity, Netflix on Thursday tweeted out shows that people might not realize are on the service.

“The one thing they want to watch on TV is sports, and there won’t even be sports,” Greenfield said.

TV is hardly alone in fearing a slowdown. Stock markets around the world suffered steep losses this week, and the entertainment industry shut down operations en masse Thursday. Movie studios delayed releases, theme parks are getting shuttered, and concert promoters have postponed tours.

But the economic fallout from the coronavirus, which has killed thousands of people, could cause long-term damage to the pay-TV business in particular, according to analysts. Already, the TV industry is struggling to increase advertising sales due to declining viewership and competition from online alternatives. U.S. national TV ad sales fell 3% last year, according to Magna Global.

Some of the TV industry’s biggest advertisers, including airlines, cruise companies and theme-parks, have waylaid by the coronavirus. With sports on hold, ads for trucks, beer and snacks are likely to dry up.

The last global recession, in 2008, accelerated the shift of advertising dollars from print newspapers to the internet. And print media never recovered. There’s a danger that traditional TV suffers the same fate.

TV networks canceled their annual upfront presentations on Thursday, eliminating their biggest opportunity all year to impress advertisers with their upcoming slate of shows. The networks will instead stream the presentations online.

“Will cable TV networks bear the brunt of a recession?” asked Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC. “Will money not return as it didn’t for print and radio? That’s what I worry about.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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