How the world of entertainment is changing
Viral outbreaks and global pandemics have often been the subject of horror films, but they have never been relatable before now. The COVID-19 virus began its rampage on the world in December of 2019 and spread across the globe rapidly. Since the discovery of the deadly virus, new social standards and health and safety regulations have taken shape in various forms and levels of strictness. We have said goodbye to the world we knew before COVID-19 and are now trying to find a new normal that allows us to socially distance while remaining connected—and sane.
For housebound individuals, finding socially distanced entertainment can be a daily struggle. Before the pandemic, free time could be spent outside of the house, maybe with friends catching a movie, attending an event, visiting family, or doing any other activity. Now, free time is typically spent inside, aside from the occasional mask-wearing trip to the grocery store or walk around the block. And with all the extra indoor free time, many people are turning to their TVs to kill the time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) American Time Use Survey (ATUS), a survey that gathers self-reported information on how individuals choose to spend their days, in 2019, the average time spent per day socializing and communicating was 38.4 minutes and the average time spent per day watching TV was 2 hours and 48 minutes. ATUS has yet to release numbers for 2020, but other sources suggest that time spent socializing is decreasing while time spent watching TV is increasing. A survey from Nielsen shows that since Coronavirus and social distancing began, the amount of video content consumed globally has increased by 60 percent. Average hours spent watching CTV (Connected TV, TVs that connect to the internet either directly or through a device) in the U.S. peaked in the weeks from March 23 to April 12 at 3.9 hours per day. This aligns with the period when many states in the U.S. shut down their non-essential businesses, from March 17 to April 3. As the pandemic worsens, content consumption seems to increase.
One of the most popular ways to view video content is through OTT (Over the Top) streaming services. OTT streaming services are non-cable-based video platforms that operate using the internet, and there are over 190 OTT streaming services in existence currently. Some of the most popular ones are Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Video, and HBO Max. Out of the households that subscribe to at least one OTT service, 87 percent subscribe to Netflix. Netflix is one of the few global OTT services, and they currently have a total of 182.86 million global subscribers, 60 million of which are domestic. Following behind Netflix in popularity is Hulu, a domestic OTT streaming service that is currently owned by The Walt Disney Company. As of May 2020, Hulu had 32.1 million subscribers, a mere 17.5 percent of Netflix’s total subscriptions and around half of Netflix’s domestic subscriptions. By the end of 2019, roughly 74 percent (94.7 million) American households had at least one OTT streaming service subscription. By March 2020, that figure rose to 97.2 million—an almost 3 percentage point increase.
While this increase in consumer demand for streaming services is a boom for OTT companies, the global pandemic is creating challenges as well. Netflix’s first quarter shareholder letter for 2020 states that,
“almost all filming has now been stopped globally, with the exception of a few countries like Korea and Iceland. This has been devastating for millions of workers in the TV and film industry – electricians, hair and make-up artists, carpenters and drivers who are often paid hourly wages and work project-to-project.”
In the same letter, they announce their commitment to spending $150 million to support the industry during this global crisis. They also state that halted production will not impact releases during the second quarter—since filming was already completed and editing can be done from home—but will impact the third and subsequent quarters.
Impact on film production and release
Coronavirus is not only impacting the production of new films, but the release of them too. Halted production means postponed release dates on big films for 2020 and 2021. Some of the biggest titles that have been postponed are the next Star Wars movie, Marvel’s Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, the sequel to Avatar, and the new James Bond movie No Time to Die, among many others. Some studios are taking a risk and sticking to their original release dates, like Warner Bros. with their upcoming thriller movie, Tenet (premieres over Labor Day weekend). While others bite the bullet and choose to premiere on-demand, like Bill and Ted Face the Music (coming on September 1) and Mulan (release date undetermined). Typically, after a new movie premieres, there is a theatrical window of about 75 to 90 days before it is made available on-demand or on DVD. However, given the current state of the nation, many film studios are opting for a shorter or even nonexistent theatrical window. One of the first studios to do this was Universal Studios with their movie, Trolls: World Tour, which was released on-demand and in theaters worldwide on the same day. With most theaters closed due to Coronavirus, the movie relied almost solely on profit from on-demand streaming. The movie made $100 million in gross revenue from on-demand rentals in the first three weeks of its release. The revenue, although significant, is nothing compared to the 2016 Trolls movie’s gross revenue of $346 million. The true success of Trolls: World Tour may not be known for a while as gross revenue continues to climb at a decreasing rate for the movie. The theatrical window may never be the same as it was pre-pandemic, and might become more flexible or shorter in the years to come.
A move away from serious media
As the number of confirmed Coronavirus cases rise, so does the feeling of uncertainty in the future. As a result, media consumption has begun to favor lighthearted and funny media as opposed to serious or sad media. This can be seen in Netflix’s content popularity. On March 20, 2020, towards the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the States, Netflix released the original docuseries Tiger King. The series focused on the rise, fall, and arrest of zookeeper Joe Exotic. During the same week of its release, the U.S. confirmed over 18,000 Coronavirus cases and had its worst week in the stock market since the 2008 financial crisis. Yet within the first ten days of being released, the series generated 34.3 million unique views and jumped to the top of Netflix’s charts. The lurid details of Exotic’s controversial business paired with his flamboyant yet conservative personality created the perfect escape from the pandemic.
This trend towards less serious content was also noted in Hulu’s content popularity. During the month of April, as the U.S. total of confirmed coronavirus cases met and then surpassed one million, Hulu viewers logged 11 million hours of the comforting sitcom, The Golden Girls. While titles like Tiger King and The Golden Girls are faring well during the pandemic, content of more serious and intellectual nature has flopped. Mrs. America, a period drama released by Hulu that focuses on the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, is not receiving the viewership expected and might not until the American gaze shifts from lighthearted content. The same can be said about HBO’s series The Plot Against America, an “adaptation of Philip Roth’s alternate-history novel.” These titles may have to wait until awards season for larger audiences, or potentially, even longer.
Surveys indicate that as states in the U.S. have opened again, CTV usage has decreased. Some speculate that this change could be a lasting one, while others fully expect viewership to climb back up to pre-Coronavirus levels as the U.S. finds a new normal. During the month of April, as states started to loosen regulations and open non-essential businesses again, the average time spent watching TV declined. In Netflix’s most recent shareholder letter they predicted that as home confinement ends, membership growth and viewership will decline. While this may be the case, it may not be so simple if the U.S. shuts down again due to increasing COVID-19 cases and deaths. The industry might see fluctuations according to the strictness of regulations. States that close again might continue to see growth in CTV usage and OTT streaming service subscriptions while ones that continue to open might see decline in those areas as individuals take a break from TV. It is anyone’s guess how the streaming service market will fair post-pandemic, but one thing is certain, TV will never be watched the same way again.