Penned in by stay-at-home measures to fend off a pandemic, America’s audiences are turning to their television screens for comfort and distraction. Netflix, for one, saw an estimate-crushing 15.8 million jump in paid subscribers in its most recently reported quarter, more than twice as many as the streaming company expected. It is not the only direct-to-consumer service seeing such an increase.
Showtime’s streaming service, Showtime OTT, has also seen an uptick after announcing on March 20 that it would offer an extended 30-day free trial to new customers. Sign-ups have popped an average of 148% in the last four weeks, Variety has learned. Time spent on the service and total plays are each up more than 50%, with at-home audiences gravitating slightly toward movies more than TV: viewership of original TV series is up 50%, while movie viewership is up nearly 80%. ViacomCBS chief exec Bob Bakish has said Showtime and CBS All Access are collectively on track to reach 16 million paid subscriptions by the end of 2020.
“It has been an unfortunate time for the country, but it’s probably been a very good time for television,” Showtime chief operating officer Tom Christie told Variety. “And in particular, it’s been a very, very good time for Showtime, both in terms of growth in subscriptions and free trial subscriptions, as well as viewership.”
The cabler’s activity began to pick up around March 13 through March 15, in the days immediately after California Gov. Gavin Newsom strongly advised that gatherings of more than 250 people should be postponed or canceled altogether. Showtime saw a 50% increase in free-trial subscriptions and viewership in the week after the governor’s announcement, followed by another 50% bump the week after that.
Showtime has not been the only network to offer a freebie during this time in order to soothe the anxious at home — and potentially pick up a few new customers. HBO, CBS All Access and AMC are among the other networks that have offered free programming or extended free trials. While it’s still too early to fully parse the data, given that the extended trial has just lapped the month mark, Christie says that this period could “possibly the best month of viewership and free trial subscriptions that the company has ever seen.”
On Showtime’s streaming platform, series such as “Billions,” “Shameless” and the current season of “Homeland” have been driving originals viewership, alongside “Penny Dreadful” and “Twin Peaks: The Return,” the latter two of which have doubled their audiences.
The company says that its linear viewership is also up, rising in the double digits during all times of day — perhaps not surprising given that everyone is at home all the time now. But the way people watch TV appears to factor into what show or movies they wind up viewing.
“Historically, series has been a huge driver of viewership on our [over-the-top] products,” said Christie. By contrast, traditional Showtime subscribers have really been leaning into movies — viewership on set-top on-demand has spiked over 300% — as more people tune in during the daytime. Popular titles among Showtime’s linear subscribers include “Clear and Present Danger,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The American President,” “The Upside,” “Green Book,” and “A Dog’s Journey,” said the company.
This upcoming weekend should be a big one for cabler, given the “Homeland” series finale, the premiere of “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” the addition of “Hustlers” to Showtime’s programming slate. There’s also the May 3 season premiere of “Billions” next weekend.
To date, the promotion appears to have worked in getting the premium cable network more customers. Another three or four weeks of viewing data should better fill out the picture, but Christie said that he has seen “what looks like a very nice jump in paying subscribers” so far.
“One of the things that I think is going to be very interesting to watch is that we see people watching the first and second episodes of Season 1 of some shows that are in our library, so I think that bodes well for us in terms of turning those into long-term subscriptions,” said Christie.