2021: A Year Of Continued Challenges For Radio, TV


The U.S. broadcast station industry, in particular television companies, enjoyed record 2020 political revenue.

Now that those dollars are in the past, broadcast media has what Kagan analyst Justin Nielson calls “a transitional year” ahead.

This means investors and C-Suite leaders should keep those seatbelts fastened, and keep expenses under control while cash reserves are in a tight and locked position.

“While core ad revenues are improving in the first quarter of 2021, it is not the snapback many had hoped for, with the vaccine rollout slowed by supply issues and another round of stimulus still being debated in Congress,” Nielson writes in a new analysis of projected 2021 radio and TV revenue conducted by the S&P Global Market Intelligence Arm.

Another factor for broadcast media that could hamper revenue in 2021: regulatory policy shifts under a FCC led at this time by acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

As Nielson sees it, “The prospects of ownership cap relaxation for broadcasters may diminish.”

Yet, it could be too soon to make such a declaration, as the Supreme Court’s decision on whether to affirm the FCC’s cross-ownership rule rewrite or uphold the Third Circuit Federal Appeals Court remand of that rule redo isn’t due for at least three months.


Opportunities for broadcasters to boost revenues, “and relevance,” were noted by Nielson in his Kagan report.

They include ATSC 3.0-powered NEXTGEN TV, as well as new digital multicast networks — a big part of the new E.W. Scripps Co. growth plan, thanks to its merger acquisition with ION Media.

Then, there is the digital revenue potential from OTT launches for broadcast TV, in addition to more streamed original content such as news, local sports and public affairs programming.

For Radio, podcasting initiatives could spark new revenue streams, Kagan says.

“Other digital initiatives, such as Sinclair Broadcast Group‘s STIRR and E.W. Scripps Co.’s Newsy OTT platforms and podcasting for radio, are intriguing and have started to show actual results in the form of growing audiences and incremental revenues,” Nielson says. “However, major challenges could compress the sector’s sales and margins.”

In his view, National and Local spot advertising budgets could move further away from legacy media to digital alternatives. Additionally, distribution fee revenue growth from traditional multichannel retrans fees could also slow as more virtual, subscription video-on-demand and over-the-top options emerge.

Nielson briefly noted the Radio industry’s diminished “debt overhang” in 2019, and the often-repeated mantra of “sequential improvements” that publicly traded radio broadcasting companies have seen since the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic one year ago.

What does Kagan forecast for national, and local, advertising?

“National core ad revenues in 2021 should be up by low to mid-single digits, although the big question for NBC and Telemundo affiliates is whether the Summer Olympics in Tokyo will proceed as scheduled from July 23 to Aug. 8,” Nielson notes. “We expect local advertising to deliver mid- to high single-digit growth in 2021, with small and midsized markets likely outperforming large markets and urban centers with high COVID-19 infection rates, as it will take longer to vaccinate their populations.”

The local ad projection is in line with what several industry leaders have expressed to RBR+TVBR, with radio and local media companies including Townsquare Media benefiting from swifter pivots to a post-pandemic world than those with heavy exposure to PPM-measured markets.


Here’s some good news for those who have bemoaned the dreaded retransmission fee consent impasse: there were fewer in 2020 than in prior years.

Still, retrans negotiations with MVPDs remained contentious in 2020 and through the start of 2021, highlighted by the Nexstar Media Group Inc./DISH Network Corporation and TEGNA Inc./AT&T Inc. retrans disputes that impacted a combined 12.6 million subscribers. “In 2020, a total of eight major retrans disputes occurred, covering 364 stations and 22.2 million subs,” Nielson says. “However, these retrans disruptions averaged 34 days, significantly fewer than the 171 days averaged in 2019.”


Even without significant deregulation, more TV sector M&A is expected in 2021, Nielson concludes.

He points to Gray Television‘s $925 million purchase of Quincy Media, Inc.’s TV stations.

Nielson also points to “renewed takeover bids” for TEGNA, which are purely speculative amid a controversy surrounding the decision by Adonis Hoffman — a Standard General nominee for a Board of Directors seat — to withdraw his nomination over lingering sentiments for being mistaken for a valet attendant several years ago after attending an event and sitting at the same table as TEGNA CEO Dave Lougee.

Could dealmaking be on the way in the Radio industry, too?

“In radio, iHeartMedia and Cumulus Media might look to trim their portfolios or swap out of underperforming markets,” says Nielson, purely hypothetically. “There could be additional debt-for-equity swaps and distressed sales among overleveraged station owners if radio revenues continue to decline sharply in 2021.”

Only time will tell if Nielson’s assessment of the year ahead is accurate.