In this, our third and final Transformation Story, we will look at how COVID-19 has changed the value that many UK audiences now place upon television, with a daily dose of watching telly together proving hugely beneficial to the emotional and social wellbeing of them and their families.
This piece 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.
The impact of media and specifically TV on our health and wellbeing has always been complex, encompassing debates as varied as the pressures placed on young people by the perfect beach bodies of Love Island to the perils of binge watching and its impact on sleep patterns and cardiovascular disease. With the arrival of the 2020 pandemic, as audiences sought to navigate and cope with the evolving situation, the question became: was TV helping or harming?
In Red Bee Creative’s Audiences in Lockdown report back in May 2020, we observed how TV and media appeared to be helping audiences in myriad ways, including providing trusted news, inspiring creativity and bringing much-needed escape, smiles, comfort and certainty. It appeared that, at this overwhelming time of extreme anxiety and isolation, TV was genuinely helping the emotional wellbeing of many.
But, what did Professor Johnson and her team observe in their research? Their interviews supported a view that, yes, TV had helped the wellbeing of audiences: “For those leading mundane or anxious days the act of watching TV became the real highpoint of their evenings” says Professor Johnson. But, interestingly, the study also revealed that, beyond the value of the content itself, it was the new behaviours around the content viewing that the respondents most valued, as families and households came together, not only for shared viewing, but to also share the decision making in what to watch. This change in the social dynamic of the daily TV occasion and democratisation of the selection process was transformative for the emotional and social wellbeing of many households.
Before COVID-19, the value of TV for a household was personal “for me” and was largely peripheral entertainment.
In most households, the very definition of modern TV viewing was everyone in the family, in a different room, alone, looking at their own personal screen. Watching TV was, on the whole, neither a shared nor a special and premium family occasion. Decision making as to what to watch on “my screen” was “by me”. However, the power over the “main screen” and prime-time viewing tended to fall to the husband or dad, who was “in charge” of the remote, and it was “he” who had the final say over what was being watched. There was quite a startling and clearly-defined patriarchal TV-viewing hierarchy, that felt anything but “modern”:
“So, when you sit down to watch TV together, who has hold of the remote?”
“Nine times out of ten, it’s my husband” Carrie, 35
And this left wives and mums indifferent and lacking technological know-how so, in order to manage household dynamics or bypass the difficulties of using TV sets, like their kids, Mum too would often watch TV on her tablet, in the bedroom.
After COVID-19, the value of TV for a household had become communal “for us” and was fundamental to individual and family wellbeing.
Household dynamics were transformed in many very challenging ways. In the case of TV consumption, the research suggests that family dynamics changed rapidly, in positive ways that audiences valued hugely. Watching TV had gone back in time to become a comforting, communal “campfire” experience once more, with audiences from all demographics valuing and anticipating the daily coming together as a family to enjoy watching the telly. With retro viewing behaviours taking hold, tablets, consoles and TVs distributed across the house gathered a little more dust. The specialness of the occasion itself had been elevated, so too had the main screen.
“We decided to mount the TV on the wall…it’s gonna go where my MBE was.” Jumana, 54
Decision making over what to watch had undergone a massive change: the male-skewed content discovery and decision-making hierarchy had broken down and the silverback had lost control over his remote. There had been a massive devolution and democratisation of power, with mums, kids and dads all having a say in what is watched.
In lockdown, families spent more time together in the living room. Children gained more say over what was watched, and dads became more flexible. Wives had the time and motivation to learn more about their devices, and began to take back control of the remote. There was more negotiation and democratic decision making between partners, as they prioritised time together over personally-favoured content. This was mentally important for participants, boosting their emotional wellbeing and keeping them grounded. For those experiencing mundane or anxious days, the act of watching TV together became the real highpoint of their evenings.
Meera, 20, a student in her last year at University, was forced to return home by the pandemic. During lockdown everyone was at home: her dad was furloughed, her mum was working from home, her sister was also back from uni and her brother was home schooling.
Before COVID-19, in 2019, Meera tended to watch the content she really wanted to watch by herself, in her room, on her laptop. The living room was very much her dad's room and, even though she used the TV, it tended to be with his accounts. He typically led the decision over what to watch.
“I do like watching TV, probably more in my room than actually on TV downstairs.
Whose Netflix account is it on the main TV? Probably my dad’s.
I have my Netflix on my phone and my laptop.”
“We watched something that my dad wanted to watch …it was kind of like a competition where it was who had the best lyrics, and it was done by rapper, (..). So he was like, oh yeah, I wanna watch this.”
After COVID-19, with all the family at home, they were much more democratic in their decision making, choosing content to watch as a family and looking forward to cherished family time: this meant they saved up content to watch together, and she spent less time alone in her room.
“(Re Money Heist) I was like, yeah, I'm gonna start it! And then my dad was saying he wanted to watch it. So then, because none of us had seen It… like, my sister hadn't started it either. So we were just, oh, we'll just start it together then!”
“Yesterday I was, like, to my dad, "Can I put Coronation Street on." But because my mum has been working late, he was like, "No, because your mum wants to watch it … Wait ‘til she's free and then you can watch it."
54-year-old Helga lost a cousin to COVID-19. She has continued to go out to work, whilst her husband has been working from home.
Before COVID-19 Helga watched TV mostly alone, whilst husband Gordon enjoyed “his” content, alone, in a different room.
“My husband likes completely different programmes to me.
He sits and watches these programmes where everyone turns into werewolves.
Whereas I like my factual stuff like Housewives of Beverly Hills…
I watch that on me own ‘cause my husband hates it.”
After COVID-19, the changes to the working schedules enabled time to watch together. This was a huge change for Helga, and a real blessing to emerge from the situation. She has enjoyed the sense of togetherness and found watching films together incredibly soothing during this stressful time.
“I haven't caught up on anything that I have been watching, like The Housewives of Beverly Hills and all…
During lockdown our TV viewing has completely changed. Absolutely completely changed. We both watch telly together.
And it's really nice and we haven't got on each other's nerves and we say, "Should we sit down and watch a film and open a bottle of wine?"
Musa, 50, lives with his wife and two grown-up sons, who are 17 and 27 years old. During lockdown, the whole family were working from home.
Before COVID-19, Musa was a sports fan who rarely watched TV with the rest of his family. TV was not part of family conversations, and it held little emotional value for him.
“I think my family don’t really watch that much TV. My Mrs has her own sort of interests (…) there are a few Asian channels that my Mrs watches, like I can let you know 409 is Sky Sports and 501 is Sky News.”
During lockdown, Musa’s relationship with TV was genuinely transformed. This was more than simply a matter of finding companionship on the sofa to alleviate boredom. By watching TV with his grown-up sons (re-watching Merlin, Tracy Beaker and The Fresh Prince together) Musa reconnected with them in a way that he hadn’t done for years and years. It was the act of watching TV with his loved ones more than the content that not only relieved stress, but provided him with cherished and valuable memories during this time.
“One of the biggest things that has changed, is that collectively, as a family we've downloaded quite a few series and we've sat there in the evenings and watched them together. Which rarely happened prior to the lockdown, to be honest. Either I'd be doing my thing, they'd be doing theirs (…) But now, it's more of a family thing.”
"It makes us feel a little bit better that we’ve all started watching something together and talking about it and what have you. And it’s almost like an event that happens every day.”
Has the pandemic made everyday TV a little bit more like Christmas TV? With families gathering together around their big screen, to do quizzes together, re-watch nostalgic classics and savour stories, it does seem so.
So much of the narrative over this *unprecedented* time has been one of social isolation and fragmentation. But the stories of Helga, Musa and Meera provide a window into homes and families that prior to COVID-19 had been fragmented, but are now unified. These stories also highlight that, for all of the ills that are so often laid at the door of TV, it does good too. A lot of good, for a lot of us.
What might the new shared occasion and shared decision making mean for us moving forward? How might brands and marketers nurture the new collective behaviours that are so valued by households? How might they capitalise on a much deeper and appreciative emotional connection between audiences and their television?
The University of Huddersfield’s 2019 research revealed that default behaviours in content discovery could often lead audiences to miss prominent features in user interfaces. Put simply, many audiences skipped past the home page, rendering its key art and smart recommendations redundant. But now, as families gather around the TV, the default behaviours of individuals are disrupted, replaced by negotiation and new habits developing. There is an opportunity here for marketers, OTT product developers and UX/UI designers to introduce new features and navigation tools tailored to communal viewing, in recognition of the fact that content discovery can now also be a shared process as well as actual TV watching.
The streamers’ lens onto their audience is decidedly you (singular) vs you (plural). They encourage individual profiles, with tailored and separate recommendations and watchlists. And, on Netflix and Disney+, whilst you can choose a profile image of an individual character from some of their best-loved shows, you can’t choose a collective. Of course, there is a practicality to making a “group” visible in a profile icon, but that’s missing the point, which is: how can these services celebrate, nurture and acknowledge everyday “collective” viewing? And how can they help families to find the common ground across the individual profiles to surprise and delight the whole household? Yes, they have digital watch parties, but these are more about bringing together those who are geographically apart. How can they bring the party to those who are together?
As families have started discussing TV more, how can brands be part of that conversation? From a marketing perspective, there is an opportunity to acknowledge this recent heightened appreciation of the joy of shared viewing by drawing on it overtly in promotional campaigns. Some TV shows lend themselves to this approach more readily than others, of course, but look out for more campaigns that in some way communicate the shared value and universal appeal of a show.
So, to conclude our COVID TV Transformation Stories, it’s reassuring to end on a note of joy and optimism. We sincerely hope that, when all of this is “over”, we’ll all continue to value the sharing of stories around the “family campfire” and we’ll remember that, deep down, TV is good for us.
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.