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5 ways the writers’ and actors’ strike will impact advertising

August 2, 2023 | By Todd Krizelman, CEO – MediaRadar @ToddKrizelman

On May 2nd, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), an alliance of over 11k film, TV, news, radio, and online writers went on strike demanding fair contracts and pay stability. They also stated numerous concerns surrounding artificial intelligence. In June 2023, 65k actors from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) cast their votes to join the strike in support of their colleagues and to protest how technology has affected their wages as well.

There is much talk about the impact the current entertainment industry strike will affect advertising. The truth is, we are just starting to see its influence. This is mostly due to the timing of the strike. Many scripted shows are on hiatus during the summer and typically advertising is purchased well in advance of their run dates. As the strike drags on, the impact will be keenly felt across much of the media industry. 

Here are five ways we will likely see the strike impact advertising’s bottom line.

A short strike may be a win for broadcasters and streamers

In the short term, broadcasters and streamers are likely to see a boost in their profits. While that may seem surprising on the surface, if the strike lasts under four months it’s a real possibility.

Broadcasters and streaming companies have already sold the advertising that will air during these months. Additionally, contractor and personnel costs declined sharply during the early months of the strike. Hopefully, these early profits are reinvested to buy up the rights to movies and content available for sale – as a way to shore up their audiences regardless of the strikes’ duration. 

However, broadcasters and streamers should be prepared with new inventory, so they don’t lose out to social media if the strike continues until early 2024, as many predict it will. They will want to avoid airing reruns instead of new content, since that will affect viewership and in turn advertising revenue will be lower.

Broadcasters will be hit hardest if the strike goes beyond six months

If the strike lasts only a few months, changes in ad spend may be limited. In the short term, we haven’t seen much of an impact on ad sales. However, if the strike goes beyond a few months, the largest TV broadcasters could be hit hardest. Relative to streaming channels, TV broadcasters have more content that’s prepared “just in time.” 

Unscripted television, like variety shows, reality shows, and game shows have not been impacted by the strike too much. However, we do see a hit to lucrative late-night talk shows, which have already been off the air for a couple of months. This programming relies on writers who have been on strike since early May. 

Prime time advertising is estimated at $13.1 billion during the first half of 2023, which makes up 50% of all national TV ad spend. If the strike is prolonged, we could easily see some weekly prime-time TV shows off the air after a few months of their Fall debuts, as a result of new episodes not being completed.

Media & entertainment advertising will suffer across media

Movies, streaming services, and TV shows (along with others that support the industry) invested over $3.9 billion from January through June 2023. This represents 39% of the total ad spend from media and entertainment advertisers ($10 billion). This estimated advertising investment reaches beyond just TV, to over a dozen media formats. Since the start of the strike, we saw a dip in May YoY (4%). However, in June this segment was already down 26% YoY.  As the strike continues, advertising to promote movies, shows, and streaming services will likely continue to decrease and shift in investment. 

A prolonged strike may even prompt the largest U.S. firms to move more English-language production outside the U.S., to work around the problem entirely. Many countries have none of the protections offered to SAG members in the U.S., offering a viable alternative to production companies. 

Streaming and social platforms may experience a resurgence due to the strike

Streaming channels have significant material pre-recorded, “in the can.” This gives them the  ability to release movies, mini-series, and documentaries. If they have new content while broadcasters are struggling to recreate fall lineups, streamers will benefit. Netflix’s CEO has already said they’ve been preparing for the strike for some time and will stretch out their new releases.

In the event of a longer strike, streaming channels can easily dub content from outside the U.S. and show it here. We saw this during the pandemic. For example, Netflix saw great success airing the South Korean survival drama, Squid Game in the US. Another example, and a personal favorite of mine, was the HBO produced sci-fi flick, Beforeigners. This show  was originally produced in Norway and was dubbed and placed in their U.S. lineup. 

We are also likely to see social video platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram benefit from a prolonged strike. Their content producers are independent and non-unionized so these platforms will not see a pause in content creation. Viewing hours could easily surge as they did during the pandemic, which will drive more advertising dollars away from traditional broadcasters and toward streaming and social platforms.

Sports and news content will be sold at even more of a premium

Broadcasters with sports rights could do well in this environment because sports content is likely to be one area that isn’t negatively affected by the strike. Broadcasters will likely lean into more active coverage of sports. And they can use the strike as ammunition to defend the high price of sports licensing fees. 

We also predict that news broadcasters will sell advertising at a premium as well. News broadcasters are covered by SAG, but they have their own separate contract. As a result, news programming and advertising supporting it will continue and may even expand. Media like CNBC, NPR, Bloomberg, etc. will be mostly unaffected.

While the full impact of the writers’ and actors’ strike is still very much uncertain, it is expected to result in notable alterations and realignments of advertising investment in the upcoming months. While some may experience short-term advantages due to reduced costs and pre-sold advertising, the long-term impact could profoundly impact advertising investment across media.

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