Covid Anniversary Blog
In a year when we spent more time at home than ever before, television provided a crucial window on the world. Ofcom estimated in August 2020 that during lockdown people were spending an average of 40% of their waking hours in front of a screen. TV watching was up by approximately a third.
While this might look like a windfall for TV broadcasters, these activities coincided with a sudden recession which wiped out a swath of advertising money. This led to a frustrating paradox – more people were watching, but broadcasters could not make extra revenue from the larger audiences.
In any case, there was the significant problem of what to fill schedules with. Like in most industries, normal processes for TV production juddered to a halt. We quickly became used to seeing contributors to news or panel shows Zooming in from home, with the inevitable ‘hilarity’ caused by interrupting children or pets.
Though our usual expectations for what TV ‘should’ look like were upended, in some ways these new practices provided a heightened version of the TV experience. TV has historically operated using an aesthetic that combines intimacy – an emphasis on human connection – with immediacy – the feeling that we are we are watching things unfold as they happen. Zoom interviews combine the two, giving us a momentary glimpse into the private world (and at the carefully curated bookshelves) of contributors.
But there were still huge gaps to fill in the schedules. Research at the University of Huddersfield suggested that this did not go unnoticed by audiences, who found their usual menu of ‘event television’ (high profile new shows scheduled in peak time) replaced by repeats.
The launch of Disney+ in March 2020 was seen by many as another nail in the coffin of broadcast television. Indeed, streaming video on demand services added an extra 4.6m subscribers during lockdown. Research found that people were turning to drama boxsets to escape the tedium.
Adopting a ‘show must go on’ attitude, the UK television industry agreed protocols in May 2020 for Covid secure productions. The gradual resumption of regular programming – especially soaps – mirrored the slow return to normality experienced in daily life. The reliability and routine of television schedules, especially daytime television provided a source of comfort to those who suddenly found themselves adrift in furlough.
Meanwhile, daily televised briefings provided a much-needed demonstration of the power and value of broadcasting. Watching the Prime Minister and his associates (or in Scotland, the First Minister) deliver key messages became for many a grim ritual, but one enabled by broadcast’s unique ability to gather a nation together.
The impact of Covid on TV production and broadcast has been vast and painfully visible. But it can also teach us about the ongoing value and importance television has in our lives: as a source of information, of comfort, and of connection. The problem comes of course, when you find that you have ‘completed Netflix’, and what to do next!
Dr Hannah Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University.