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What have you been watching during the pandemic?

23 April 2021. Published by Kiran Dhoot, Associate

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen dramatic shifts in the content and media we consume, and the way in which we consume it. That is not itself surprising, but how and to what extent has our media consumption actually changed?

With the end of lockdown now within our sights, let's look back at our watching habits. It is no surprise that when many people were confined to their homes in March 2020, one of the most common conversation topics was "what are you watching?", usually followed by a recommendation to look up Tiger King. It was Netflix's most successful release at the time, and it has been suggested that this was partly a result of the COVID-19 pandemic providing a captive audience. 

Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, has been monitoring how we have been viewing TV, online and app-based content on a weekly basis from late March, shortly after the first nationwide lockdown was announced. The results of their ongoing study and other analysts' data about local and global trends make for interesting reading.

News and TV

In general, broadcast TV audience reach has fallen consistently in 2020 compared to previous years, although it has mirrored the seasonal trends. The only exception was in late March which saw a massive spike in TV viewership when the lockdown was announced. Initially, COVID-19 actually boosted broadcast TV reach to levels surpassing those in 2019, although figures sharply dropped off to below previous years' reach as audiences turned to other sources of news and entertainment shortly after.

Ofcom found that the top 3 news sources in 2020 were the BBC, ITV and Facebook, in that order, with the most watched TV programme of 2020 being the Prime Minister's statement about social distancing restrictions on 10 May 2020. However, all this news about COVID-19 contributed to pandemic fatigue. Unsurprisingly, by week 43 of Ofcom's study, 1 in 3 people surveyed were actively trying to avoid news about COVID-19 compared to 1 in 4 in week 1.

TV has been the stalwart news source of the UK for decades, even against the background of falling audience reach and growing online outlets, and the pandemic has highlighted how we still turn to it in times of crisis.

Streaming and online content 

Netflix and similar streaming services make up the subscription video-on-demand market ("SVOD").  One of the most interesting pieces of data relates to the rate at which more senior generations in the UK have been gaining access to SVOD services during the pandemic. 

To provide some context, in 2020, there was a 7% increase in SVOD service users among 16-24 year olds compared to 2019. For people aged 35-44 there was an impressive 14% increase in uptake of SVOD services. Notably, amongst people aged 65-75 SVOD service usage increased to 7% from 2019 to 2020, up from 3% across 2018 to 2019. 

This means that the rate of UK seniors subscribing to SVOD services matched their juniors in the 16-24 age group, possibly as a result of increased isolation. Expectations about which generations are more likely to subscribe to these services have been bucked by the pandemic. 

App based content

Interestingly, during the lockdown, Deloitte has found that there had been a decrease in the daily usage of smartphones. In the UK, mobile phone data usage fell by 5% from April to July 2020, leading to desktop internet browsing becoming the main form of internet access.

Despite this, the reach of social media apps did not fluctuate in March, in contrast to other media. One exception was TikTok, which saw its audience reach suddenly rise when the lockdown started, resulting in it overtaking Snapchat's reach in March 2020. Indeed, shortly after the lockdown was announced, the average number of minutes per day on Snapchat fell dramatically; Snapchat is all about messaging friends and showing off your surroundings via snaps and stories which are viewable on the platform for up to 24 hours– great when you are able to go outside and do things. By contrast, TikTok is a publication platform more akin to Twitter where sharing homegrown content to the general public is better facilitated.

Video Gaming and esports

The video game sector generally has also seen a significant boost over the pandemic. Verizon reported that there was a 75% increase in gaming data usage as a result of the lockdown. Evidently more people are turning to gaming to keep themselves entertained. 

Massively popular free-to-play games, such as "Call of Duty: Warzone", have helped fuel this general trend. In addition, esports, where people watch gamers play competitively, has also risen as a result of the pandemic to fill part of the void in traditional sports. Twitch, a platform on which gamers stream competitive and casual gameplay, is estimated to have increased its audience by around a third during March 2020 alone.

The road ahead?

We have become more united in choosing UK-wide news sources, but more diverse in our choice of platform. We expected a rise in SVOD service users over time, but older generations have been subverting expectations about the makeup of the viewer base. We have been using our phones less but have been using social media apps consistently. 

The question remains that when the lockdown ends, will trends return to pre-lockdown levels and patterns? Some commentators say this is unlikely. Had the lockdown lasted only for a few weeks, consumers would have been vastly more likely to revert back to pre-lockdown habits. However, with the end of lockdown around the corner, content providers should consider that the shifts in consumption patterns are likely to be permanent.