Streamers Ramp Up Free Trials and Other Giveaways for Housebound Americans

OTT offerings look to boost goodwill, and find new subscribers, amid COVID-19 crisis

Streamers like Showtime, Amazon and CBS All Access are serving up special offers to woo new audiences. Sources: Getty Images, Showtime, CBS All Access, Amazon Prime TV
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

Star Trek fans got a gift from actor Patrick Stewart this week: a free month of CBS All Access, the streaming service that is home to his new series, Star Trek: Picard, which just aired its Season 1 finale. In an Instagram post, Stewart, whose character Jean Luc-Picard first appeared in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, offered up a free 30-day trial to the streaming service with a promotion that will last until late April.

The move is just one of many giveaways streamers have created to lure new audiences as more and more Americans are self-isolating due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, and housebound families look to television to pass the time. Streamers are handing out extended free trials left and right, and some are dropping certain programming in front of their subscription paywalls.

The giveaways are a way for streamers to build goodwill with customers while giving them a taste of their shows which could turn those audiences into long-term subscribers.

Niche subscription video-on-demand services like AMC Network’s horror SVOD Shudder and British SVOD AcornTV began extending their seven-day free trials into 30-day free trials last week, a move that AMC Networks SVOD president Miguel Penella said was intended to give customers “an entertaining escape” as people “face prolonged isolation and potential economic hardship in the coming weeks.”

Premium cable channel and subscription streamer Showtime, which like CBS All Access is owned by ViacomCBS, began offering new customers 30-day free trials on March 20. The response so far has been incredibly positive, and the service has seen an increase of more than 145% in sign-ups so far, said Showtime Networks chief operating officer Tom Christie.

“With people needing to stay home, we wanted to offer up our vast library of content to provide entertainment during this difficult time,” Christie said.

Noggin, another ViacomCBS property that features kids programming, will begin offering a 30-day free trial beginning April 1. And other premium cable properties like Epix and Crown Media Family Networks (parent company of the Hallmark Channel and the subscription streaming service Hallmark Movies Now) are offering 30-day free trials, too. The thinking, according to a statement from Crown Media, is “to provide feel-good entertainment and forge a sense of community and connectedness” as people are isolating at home.

On other streamers, the giveaways have taken the form of some free programming. Amazon Prime Video this week made a catalog of kids and family programming, including PBS Kids shows like Arthur, available to watch for free without a Prime subscription, something that drew the attention of parents whose children are out of school or childcare due to closures around the country.

Apple TV+, which normally costs $4.99 a month, released Oprah Talks Covid-19, a series filmed from talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s home, and made it available for free, without an Apple TV+ subscription. Oprah Talks Covid-19, which is being released weekly, remains the only streaming original available entirely in front of a streamer’s paywall.

Telcos and steaming devices aren’t offering free trials themselves but are instead looking to curate and aggregate them for their customers. Verizon and Comcast both issued statements this week showing off the free trials available across various services that can be accessed through their television hubs, from broad offerings like Showtime and Epix to more niche services like fitness streamers. Roku informed customers Thursday night that 30-day trials from a variety of services would be available through the Roku Channel.

The giveaways and free programming come as television usage is soaring. Total television usage time was up 18% March 16-22 compared to the previous week, according to new data from Nielsen. Samba TV, another measurement firm that measures television use over a panel of connected TV devices, told Adweek that television usage on Wednesday alone was up 71% year over year. It’s a reflection of just how dramatically consumer behavior has shifted as normal life grinds to a halt.

Some streamers, including Disney+ and Hulu, made shows and movies available sooner than expected to give housebound viewers something else to look forward to. The art-house film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, whose theatrical release was cut short when theaters closed over coronavirus concerns, has landed on Hulu to stream, and other theatrical releases are being made available to buy or rent on-demand much sooner than they normally would be.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.