COVID TV Transformation Stories Part 2: YouTube: From Distraction To Engagement


This is the second part of our study into the ways in which COVID-19 has transformed TV viewing habits and the implications of these changes for our industry.

The study is based on original qualitative research conducted by a team at the University of Huddersfield, starting in mid-2019 and with a second stage amongst the same respondents a year later, in the middle of the summer 2020 lockdown.

The full report can be downloaded here.

In the first article we described how “Silver Streamers” are deserting public service broadcasters (PSBs) for SVoD. The second significant transformation suggested by the research is that not only are more audiences making habitual use of YouTube, but there is a shift in the YouTube audience need state from “distracted” to “engaged”.

In Red Bee Creative’s Audiences in Lockdown report back in May 2020 we highlighted how early in the pandemic - with audiences isolated indoors, but seeking to connect and belong to something bigger - YouTube recognised the potential of its “with me” videos, which had been around since as early as 2007. While encouraging everyone to #StayHome, YouTube also invited creators to take part in a #WithMe campaign and curated playlists for activities including cooking, cleaning and exercising. Comedian Russell Howard’s Home Time aired live from his childhood bedroom before being uploaded to his YouTube channel.  Netflix made some of its nature documentaries available free on YouTube.

#NationalTheatreAtHome streamed much-loved weekly shows on YouTube and, of course, The Body Coach, Joe Wicks, gained over 1 million subscribers in just a week in the early days of his wildly-successful online lockdown workouts

All this activity played its part in YouTube reaching new and increasingly mainstream audiences, and encouraging them to discover a wealth of alternative content. But, more than simply increasing YouTube’s reach, in their 2019 vs 2020 research The University of Huddersfield team observed a significant shift in the audience need state that YouTube was meeting.

Before COVID-19, it was generally the case amongst the research respondents that YouTube was used in a limited way for niche, distracted viewing.  Typical examples included instructional content like DIY tips, music videos, gaming hacks or short-form user-generated content.  While a minority of research respondents were already using YouTube much like they used linear TV channels and streaming services, it was more generally seen as a source of “filler” content, particularly by younger audiences. The distraction need state was dominant.

After COVID-19, our changing ways of life prompted two things in parallel. Firstly, more people turned to YouTube as a substitute for missed activities, with examples from the research including exercise tutorials and religious content.  Secondly, in response to this new demand and new audiences, fresh video material began springing up on YouTube to draw viewers in more deeply. YouTube was now found to meet 5 need states newly defined by the researchers: Sanctuary, Companionship, Connection, Escape and Information, and YouTube viewing had gone from distracted to engaged.

After lockdown had started, participants spent more time browsing on YouTube and realised that they could find the kind of content they would previously have associated only with linear telly and the streamers, notably news, entertainment and factual. Moreover, as their usage and awareness grew, targeted recommendations became more valued by the audience, helping them to discover new content, new channels and/or creators. YouTube’s subscriptions, search features and algorithms allowed not only personalisation but, importantly, YouTube empowered audience customisation and curation, in a way that many online TV services do not. 

YouTube’s shift from distracted to engaged viewing was in a large part down to this customisation and the specificity of its personalisation, which served niche and individual viewing interests that were not fulfilled by mainstream TV. But it was also because it offered audiences more serendipitous discovery than the “because you watched this, why don’t you watch more of the same” recommendation engines. As one respondent said: “I can start with one genre and end up somewhere totally different”. As familiarity with the platform grew, participants began actively to explore more, seeking out what content was on the platform and feeling pleasantly surprised by the wealth of options available. YouTube was able to resolve a paradox for audiences and be at once more diverse and more targeted.

In the words of the researchers: “It became a destination for both specific and exploratory content, with participants beginning to incorporate it in their habitual viewing behaviour”.


Jaisal, 25, lost his job teaching in Vietnam when COVID-19 hit. He returned to live with his parents but, because he was no longer working, lockdown felt a bit like a holiday. 

Before COVID-19 Jaisal was already a heavy user of YouTube and it was particularly associated with short-form video used for casual distraction at the end of a busy day. He found the content more relevant and personalised for him than Netflix, which was for more sociable entertainment.

“When you’re bored, when you’ve got time to kill, you’ll just go on YouTube and OK, let’s just watch some videos, but you wouldn’t go with the intent to watch something in particular”

After COVID-19 and lockdown, Jaisal continued to turn to Netflix for long-form entertainment, but his viewing of YouTube had become more engaged: whether habitually turning to YouTube in the mornings to get the latest coronavirus updates from the PSBs, or tuning in during the evenings for a live stream from a spiritual practitioner in India. He valued not only the personalised relevance of the content, but also his ability to customise his own content feed.

“All the big TV stations, BBC, ITV, Channel 4, all of these ones are streaming now all of these updates on YouTube.”

As a consequence Jaisal feels that PSBs are far more important:

“Because they're talking about issues that are entirely affecting me right now.”

“There are some videos I'm trying to avoid, (…) you can actually go to, like, the actual video itself and you can click on a tab and you can say, I don't want to watch this kind of content any more or this content creator … So gaming videos I have stopped.”


Martin, 45, has a generally low level of engagement in TV.  Before COVID-19, he did use YouTube but associated it mainly with light entertainment for his children.

“(I use YouTube) for the kids when we’re on holiday, when we’re travelling in the car I’ll put Mr Bean on the phone and balance that up behind my seat somewhere so that they can watch it.”

During lockdown Martin started to explore YouTube for himself and discovered a broad and diverse range of content that appealed to his interests.  He found that his smart TV made it easy for him to find programmes and personalities he had enjoyed on PSB channels and he began to value tailored recommendations that encouraged him to keep watching.

“I've also been watching (…) Robbie Cumming, Canal Boat Diaries…It was on telly, it was on BBC Four. (…) I Googled him. And I didn't know he was on YouTube, because he's got his own YouTube channel, I only thought it was one on BBC Four, I think it was about half a dozen episodes and I was a bit sad when it finished because I used to like that. But I went on YouTube and it's very similar to what's on telly, but all his own work, so I started watching them.”


Fred, 65, tended to be a selective viewer of PSBs and more niche sources like Channel 4’s Walter Presents and the now defunct movies4men channel for his favourite content, for example war films, documentaries and Nordic dramas.

Before COVID-19 he didn’t feel that YouTube could be a valuable source of content like this and associated it mainly with DIY tutorials.

“I mean YouTube occasionally but that’s usually like, you know, how to fix your cooker, you know. (…) Instruction thing or something like that.”

After COVID-19, Fred’s engagement with YouTube had been transformed.  He realised that he could search for the content he loved to watch in a much more convenient and flexible way, rather than waiting for linear broadcasts or accessing broadcaster-video-on-demand (BVoD) services.  He found himself returning more frequently to YouTube to seek out new (or old) content that he didn’t know existed and this helped him to use TV to escape during lockdown.

“​You get people (…) who are doing these things on YouTube who are, um, I mean, they might be professional or they're keen amateurs on very focused subjects which don't really get much of an airing on (TV…), so there's a series about the First World War, which I know has been on the telly many, many times, but it's much more detailed and it covers parts of the war and the aftermath, which is of particular interest to me. The aftermath which you don't get on mainstream TV.”

Jaisal, Martin and Fred have shown us, in their individual ways, how COVID-19 has begun to change the relationship that TV viewers have with YouTube.  Until recently it has been seen by many people as a “video Google”:  a place to go to browse for temporarily-distracting “filler” content or to meet a specific need like a broken appliance.  As a search engine for kids, teens and young adults looking for music and entertainment it has always been powerful.  However, the research suggests that since lockdown more people have started to discover that it’s a place where they can serendipitously discover anything and, at the same time, a place that will lead them to truly niche, relevant and personalised content.

Without getting into the technicalities of machine learning and algorithms, it does appear to us that YouTube is demonstrating the potential to get closer than other online TV services to the “holy grail” of serendipitous discovery and meaningful personalisation.  We are sure that there are computer scientists at Netflix, Amazon and all their global competitors working as we write on continually improving their recommendation systems.  The evidence from this research study is that a lot can be learned from the changing ways in which people are using and valuing YouTube.

The research also supports YouTube’s own research (conducted before COVID-19), which demonstrated that people across a number of global markets, including the UK, were placing more value on content that relates to their personal interests and passions.  Asked why they watch what they watch on TV, amongst the most popular reasons were “teaches me something new”, “allows me to dig deeper into my interests” and “relates to my passions”.  Viewers like Fred, with his appetite for World War 1 content and Martin, a fan of Robbie Cumming and his Canal Boat Diaries, are good examples of this from the COVID TV research study.

For traditional linear broadcasters, especially PSBs, we suggest there is an opportunity to make more of the potential of YouTube as a “frenemy” as they seek to reach and remain relevant to audiences.  Programmes made primarily for linear broadcast and streaming on broadcaster-video-on-demand (BVoD) services can be supported with complementary content on YouTube. 

The viability of this is helped by another finding from YouTube’s own research:  that high production quality came a long way down the top 20 reasons why people watch what they watch on the platform.  In their words: “people are more inclined to watch when content speaks to what they’re passionate about, even if it doesn’t have a traditionally premium look”.  While the trend towards more engaged viewing on YouTube has, in part, been encouraged by the ease of access via apps on high-end smart TVs, during lockdown viewers have become accustomed to watching presenters in lo-fi settings like their kitchens and have appreciated the intimacy.   This should encourage creators to think that new forms of content will work effectively on YouTube in a post-COVID world without the need for lavish production budgets.

For TV marketers, this evolution of audiences on YouTube towards more engaged viewing of their creative properties and on-screen talent will only increase the need to pay more attention to their own brand ownership and attribution.  In their book The TV Brand Builders: How to win audiences and influence viewers, Red Bee Creative’s Andy Bryant and Charlie Mawer talked about the growing need for content creators to assert themselves and maintain their brand association with the shows and content they produce.  A phrase we have heard frequently when talking with marketers globally is the importance of “driving credit back”: making sure that their channel or network brands remain associated with the creative decisions and risks they take.  This is a challenge as content becomes more readily available to watch on a wider range of platforms and demands fresh thinking about brand identity and graphic design, for example the need to weave your brand inextricably into key art that may only be viewed as a thumbnail and to invent additional forms of what we call “brand imprints” to give your brand prominence as audiences are increasingly drawn to YouTube for mainstream TV viewing. 

Lisa Matchett, Head of Planning

The qualitative research was conducted at the Centre for Participatory Culture at the University of Huddersfield by Professor Catherine Johnson, Laurie Dempsey and Professor Matt Hills.