Although he later dismissed it as a “playful misfire”, Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 single “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” is a decent pop song and a good summary of the current threat to television.
Blessed with the biggest captive audience in history, media companies are struggling to take full advantage. Most vulnerable are advertising-supported broadcasters such as the UK’s ITV, which saw ad revenues plunge 42 per cent in April, or those reliant on live sport.
Even subscription-driven businesses widely seen as benefiting from lockdowns are under strain. Netflix attracted 15.8m additional customers in the first quarter. It needs to give them something to watch.
The crunch is not immediate — Netflix is in post-production on a series of hits such as the next series of The Crown — and the company says it can stick to its planned releases into next year.
But eventually the streaming service will run out of the “original content” that it has bet on in the past few years. A $17bn annual budget is of limited use when your stars are stuck at home and your crews must socially distance.
It is a reason to be cautious on Netflix, whose shares have risen 30 per cent this year and whose $200bn valuation is more than nine times its revenues and 90 times profits.
Yet in two corners of the world, at least — South Korea and Iceland — it has continued filming.
Having already hosted productions of Game of Thrones, Justice League, Star Wars and Black Mirror in recent years, Iceland is now receiving a new flurry of calls from producers considering it as a location.
“Where I live in New York, the streets around me would have been lined with film crews for the pilot season,” said Hlynur Gudjonsson, Icelandic trade commissioner. “There is probably a certain amount of desperation brewing.”
Iceland’s film commission is lobbying for the two-week quarantine for visitors to be relaxed for incoming actors and crew, suggesting they can take Covid-19 tests before arriving and stay apart from the local population while they shoot.
And Netflix is pressing ahead filming Katla, a sci-fi series that starts with the eruption of a subglacial volcano.
In an op-ed this week, the company’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos pointed to a strict regime on the Icelandic set — temperature checks and steam-cleaned wardrobes — as a sign of how production might be opened up elsewhere. Notably, the article appeared in the Los Angeles Times and praised California governor Gavin Newsom.
However, it is hard to imagine Hollywood returning to normal soon. Far more important than any specific safety precautions in production are national policies. Iceland has tested more than a 10th of its population for the virus. The US and other laggards such as the UK are way behind.
That does not mean Netflix is moving to Iceland en masse. It is not big enough to take on a significant amount of the world’s stalled production. And for all its otherworldly beauty, low-rise Reykjavik cannot fill in for city skyscrapers; Arctic beaches cannot pass for Malibu.
To resume full-scale production, Netflix and its rivals are left praying for lockdowns to lift in other parts of the world. Otherwise, we will be left in the situation The Boss described: “We switched ’round and ’round ’til half past dawn; there was 57 channels and nothin’ on.”
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