COVID-19 has hit the TV industry hard. Never before has it been called upon to adapt to such rapidly changing circumstances. And adapt it has: channels, networks and streaming services have responded quickly, effectively, and incredibly creatively to the changing needs of their audiences. In the time since lockdown has been enforced, we have observed 12 audience needs and gathered 12 observations on how audiences and TV brands have responded to them. All of these observations are available in greater detail in our full report, Audiences in Lockdown.


Recognizing the audience’s need for Clarity, news was a first responder to the pandemic. And it was broadcast TV news channels (national and regional) that, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), emerged as the most trusted sources of information, with social media lagging behind. Audiences of all ages are seeking credible facts from the experts, some of whom have emerged as the new media heroes of the crisis. From CNN’s Town Hall with the cast of Sesame Street to Stephen Curry’s Instagram Live chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci, TV networks have been quick to extend the experts’ reach and engagement. Public service broadcasters, especially in Europe, have taken the lead, establishing their role as their country’s first point of reference and the go-to source of information for local, meaningful content.


TV, media and talent brands have been fundamental in uniting us, nationally and globally, tapping into our tribal nature and instinctive need for Belonging. They have been beacons of solidarity, enabling the sharing and active participation in live experiences and opening up new ways of us being together and belonging to something bigger. From one-off global events like Global Citizen and WHO’s uplifting One World: Together at Home concert to big brands such as Netflix hosting “digital watch parties” to homespun initiatives born on social, there have been an abundance of brands bringing us closer together, forging emotional connections and building communities.


With original productions culled and location shoots impossible, exclusive access to talent (at home) is what can happen right now. This need for Connection has been met in new and innovative ways. More intimate relationships have opened up and some of these are bypassing the traditional intermediary role of a TV channel or network, while others exemplify innovative partnerships. Audiences are enjoying the intimacy and immediacy of hanging out with sport, music and TV talent in their own homes and we have all adapted quite easily to the low-fi production values that have followed as a result. Food Network’s Ina Gartner was one of the first to join the fray with her at-home cocktail hour. And, over on TBS, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal is being filmed with a kid crew in the woods behind her house before airing on the network.


To mitigate the collateral damage of the pandemic, TV brands recognized early on the imperative to respond to the audience’s need for Well-being and were quick to demonstrate social responsibility and solidarity. Networks such as ITV in the UK have lived up to their “More than TV” proposition by bringing forward their “Britain Get Talking” campaign, supporting individuals and families with mental wellness. Others have helped home-schoolers and reinforced social distancing messages. And networks such as Dave in the UK, whose purpose is “to add wit to the world,” have lifted our spirits with playful distraction and laughter. The need for support won’t disappear when lockdown restrictions are finally eased. And other needs, notably economic-related, will emerge. For those brands whose purpose is genuinely congruent with needs during this time of crisis, it is right to dial it up.


In dark times, audiences need and seek Comfort. For many, in times of uncertainty, there is a strong desire to escape to something known and certain: the rose-tinted past. We’ve seen increased daily streaming of pre-loved series like The Wire, Sex and the City and The Sopranos. And Disney leaned heavily on nostalgia to promote the launch of Disney+. That’s not just because there is not new stuff available (there’s loads). It’s because right now we crave familiar characters, punchlines and final match scores that we can be sure of. We’re also seeing an uptick in content that evokes a bygone era, with shows like the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and Hallmark’s When Calls the Heart seeing big boosts in viewing. Societal experience of past crises suggests that, even as peak anxiety subsides, we’ll move gradually through periods of adjustment and re-evaluation, during which audiences will continue to seek the reassurance of content and characters they know and of bygone “happier and simpler times,” which could create big opportunities for networks with deep archives.


The Olympics, Euro 2020, Champions League, NBA, The Masters, F1—all postponed or cancelled, resulting in a cataclysmic loss of viewers and ad revenue, and in the content that audiences crave to fill their need for Play. But, while the audience numbers have fallen, the innovation from TV sports brands has rocketed. Brands such as Sky Sports have reimagined archive content on shows such as Inside Line, providing analysis of F1 races, teams and drivers. Cancelled events have been recreated as simulated, live event TV, with NASCAR and FIFA leading the charge. Athletes and talent are forming new relationships with audiences, leading online workouts and skills demos. And audiences are tapping into niche events like darts and chess as they seek to re-create the thrill of live competition.


The constraints of the pandemic have ignited our creativity. At this extremely overwhelming time, people have needed to take Control of what they can: their home, their kitchen, their shed, their garden. According to cyber security company Cloudflare, traffic to gardening sites has gone up 200%. Necessity has been the mother of invention and of baking, making, mending and creating. New, rapidly-commissioned inspirational content, such as Channel 4’s Lockdown Academy, is already demonstrating how to support this new wave of creativity and endeavour as audiences, stuck at home, find purpose and structure in those projects that they swore they would do “one day.” From DIY and makeover shows such as the BBC’s Repair Shop to HGTV’s Celebrity IOU, audiences have been flocking to content that inspires them to do something more with their time than simply watch TV.


Two of the UK’s great TV love affairs—soaps and live sport—have been temporarily suspended. And what of the countless big-draw dramas whose productions have been put on hold indefinitely? The US Writers Guild strike of 2007 forced a similar pause in programming, which some savvy marketers turned to their advantage, creating huge suspense in the run-up to their eventual release, and fuelling audiences’ need for a sense of Hope for a better tomorrow. Brands such as UFC have introduced clever side narratives while they organize their return to live fight cards. ABC’s General Hospital is making its new material stretch further with editing in flashbacks to the narratives. We’ve seen talent and characters more actively engage with audiences in social. And, when AMC’s The Walking Dead season 10 was cancelled, Jeffrey Dean Morgan delighted fans with his new lockdown show.


Families with children are having a uniquely intense time: juggling home-schooling and parenting on top of everything else. This era is going to be etched on the memories of a generation of kids and their parents who needed Support more than ever. When the schools closed, virtual doors opened, with public service media brands such as the BBC’s Bitesize stepping in to fill a void and Cartoon Network’s CNCheckIn keeping kids safe and entertained. Celebrities became teachers, Joe Wicks’ 9am PE class became a global phenomenon, and cartoon characters became PSA ambassadors. Special content, such as Nickelodeon’s #KidsTogether, was quickly put to air with an aim to ease any anxiety kids might be experiencing. And many brands were quick to grant free access to their content, with streaming brands leading the way. Disney+, Audible books, Amazon Prime and Netflix all opened up some or all of their content for free (for now) to help to keep the kids entertained.


As our audiences navigate the turmoil, the arts, history and culture become a critical source of both escape and understanding humanity and our current context. Research by University College London found that viewing art can give someone the same pleasure as being in love. Stories, characters, dancers and artists, past and present, fulfil a human need for Perspective. As galleries, theatre, dance studios and museums have closed, their digital incarnations have become competitors for the audience’s attention, with the Sydney Opera House, the National Theatre, the Louvre and the Smithsonian all opening their doors, digitally, to audiences. Many are also taking advantage of a unique Google partnership that allows audiences to browse collections and gallery halls using Google’s Interior Street View functionality.


This crisis has accelerated digitisation and tech upskilling across all audience segments and ages. New content and platforms are being discovered and accessed as audiences seek Freedom to connect to the wider world. We’re seeing free premium and exclusive content, from Mubi to Quibi to Disney’s launch of Artemis Fowl, which will head straight to Disney+ this June. And, while younger generations are generally consuming more media than older generations, there are indications that COVID-19 has accelerated the growth of online TV viewing for the 55-64 year olds as well. Will we look with new eyes at our pre-COVID-19 viewing habits, questioning which ones we’ll go back to and which ones we’ll replace with something new that we have discovered? As economic anxiety overtakes health anxiety, how many subscriptions will we retain and what new ones might take their place?


“In times of crisis, the natural world is a source of both joy and Solace. The natural world produces the comfort that can come from nothing else.” So says Sir David Attenborough and we couldn’t agree more. Netflix has made Our Planet freely available on YouTube and viewing of the BBC’s Countryfile has surged since lockdown took hold. Audiences are finding new content streams, too, from hallowed institutions and organizations such as the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Perhaps audiences will leave lockdown with a new appreciation and respect for the natural world and an ignited passion to protect it.

It would be naïve to think that current behaviors will outlast the virus. So, too, would it be naïve to think that things will return to how they were before. As we see it, a dynamic new TV landscape is emerging brightly on our horizon.

Read Red Bee Creative’s full report, Audiences in Lockdown, which includes steal-worthy ideas to help TV brands provide further solutions to their audiences as they navigate their immediate futures and beyond.

Aileen Madden is deputy managing director and Lisa Matchett is head of planning at London-based Red Bee Creative.

[Image of Modern Family courtesy of ABC]

Tags: coronavirus covid-19 guest column pandemic red bee creative

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