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How COVID-19 Is Fundamentally Changing The TV Business

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Throughout this pandemic, TV has been helping so many of us pass the time at home, right? It's this constant in our lives that feels reassuring right now. But the entertainment industry is feeling the effects of coronavirus, too. Actually, the virus is fundamentally changing the TV business. Here's NPR's Sam Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: In one big way, this moment has been great for TV - millions of people all stuck at home with so much more time to watch. Broadcast TV ratings had been in decline for years, but since the pandemic, they've been up - double-digit growth in March and April compared to the previous year. That's according to Nielsen. Nielsen also found that minutes spent streaming compared to this time last year more than doubled. So far, it seems Netflix might be the biggest winner. The company added about 16 million new subscribers in the first quarter of this year. Meredith Blake covers entertainment for the LA Times. She says that's huge.

MEREDITH BLAKE: It's the biggest quarter in the entire history of the company, and that's largely due to people being locked up (laughter) - locked down at home and wanting stuff to watch and hearing about "Tiger King" or hearing about "Cheer."

SANDERS: But Blake also says...

BLAKE: all the subscribers they're getting now - it's like, who's going to be signing up in November? Somebody who's just in a cave for five years? I don't know.

SANDERS: Even with high ratings and increased subscriptions, the industry is bringing in less money. Ad revenue is down in part because all of the big spring and summer sporting events, where commercials cost a lot of money, those events are canceled. And with so much uncertainty, all the big players are pretty wary about going ahead with any plans for new stuff. But eventually, they're going to have to get back on set. What would that look like? Netflix is still producing in places like Iceland and South Korea, countries that are already pretty good at rapid coronavirus testing and contact tracing. And there are already plans in the works to make socially distanced production sets in the U.S. a reality.

JESSICA HERSHATTER: The hope is they'll be able to open - restart some shows in July or August. But my guess is it'll be closer to the fall.

SANDERS: That is Jessica Hershatter. She does camera work on TV and movie productions in Atlanta.

HERSHATTER: There's a technical explanation that's rather long-winded, but I essentially control the focus of the camera.

SANDERS: Jessica hasn't been working since early March, and she says all the folks she used to work with, they spend a lot of time now talking about how to make sets in the U.S. safe without widespread testing or a vaccine. She read an article in The Hollywood Reporter full of a lot of ideas.

HERSHATTER: Crew members wearing gloves and masks. They had talked about actors who are in intimate scenes shooting their coverage at different times from each other. They talked about, you know, hand sanitizer and wash stations and temperature checks when you walk in. They had the idea of separating departments and limiting who is on set.

SANDERS: But Jessica says a lot of those ideas just don't make sense. If you have a truly socially distanced set, how do you do hair? How do you do makeup? How do you get the perfect shot?

HERSHATTER: Until we have an actual vaccine, it's going to be really hard.

SANDERS: So maybe prepare yourselves for fewer things to watch down the road or at least more stuff that looks a lot different than the TV we're used to seeing.

Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "FIREFLIES")

GREENE: Want to hear more from Sam? You should catch his podcast, It's Been a Minute. In the latest episode - how coronavirus is upending the world of online dating.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: People put things into their profiles that were like, COVID and chill. And you're like, what? No.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "FIREFLIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.