While stay-at-home orders have increased TV viewing during the pandemic, they haven’t increased subscriptions to streaming services, said Ben Carlson, senior vice president, general manager of streaming and platforms, MarketCast, during Promax’s virtual session on Thursday.
According to MarketCast research, the amount people spent on streaming subscriptions peaked at about $38 per month in March and then drifted downward in April.
“Previously, people were time-starved and had money to add subscriptions, but what we’re seeing is our time go up while our money goes down. That has recalibrated our notion of value,” said Carlson.
That trend has likely just gotten started during the pandemic and it’s expected to continue even as stay-at-home orders wind down as people face unemployment and financial hardship.
“The last two months have changed everyone’s time and money,” said Carlson. “Consumers are thinking differently about value. They are looking for quantity, choice and immediacy. In the post-quarantine world, we believe a recessionary environment and high unemployment can continue this trend, and give it a longer-lasting impact.”
That trend isn’t just hitting streamers, but cable and satellite providers as well, Carlson said. And churn—people unsubscribing from services—is likely to climb post-pandemic.
No matter how many services viewers subscribe to, they still turn first to Netflix when searching for something to watch, Carlson said.
Streaming subscribers head to Netflix first out of all available services 70% of the time, Carlson said, and Netflix is in their top-three choices almost always. What that indicates is a lasting first-to-market advantage for the streamer.
Netflix also has continued to sate viewers’ hunger for new content during the pandemic with a constant stream of new releases. These new releases have been all over the map from a genre perspective, including such shows as runaway hit docuseries Tiger King as well as reality dating show Too Hot Too Handle, teen drama Outer Banks, comedy Black AF, and action film Extraction, starring Chris Hemsworth.
“Available choices now have far more weight than curated quality,” Carlson said. “What we’re seeing is the idea of choice and availability are having more of an impact on how people are thinking about the value for their subscription dollar and what they turn to for their subscription programming.”
On the flip side, intense and complicated shows, such as FX on Hulu’s Devs, did not find big audiences, likely because people were hesitant to engage with weighty themes during what has already been a stressful time.
“Familiarity and connection are really important right now,” said Carlson. “Shows that are brand new without onramps of familiarity are having a hard time breaking through.”
In addition, people seemed to turn more to binge releases, such as season three of Netflix’s Ozark, than episodic ones, such as Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob. Viewers seem to prefer to receive the whole season at once as opposed to waiting for the week-to-week release of episodes since they have had more time to dedicate to watching these shows.
Viewers also tended to seek out the fun, comfortable and familiar, including such shows as Community and That 70s Show. Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere also did well, even though it offers some complicated themes around race and class, but it features familiar stars in Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Other new shows that performed especially well on streaming platforms in March and April include Ozark and Tiger King, said Carlson.
Signature shows on streaming platforms—such as Netflix’s Stranger Things or Disney+’s The Mandalorian—also continued to draw audiences with viewers coming to those shows to catch up or rewatch.
“We believe there’s a tremendous value in big shows that inspire active fan participation,” said Carlson. “These shows are still being watched.”
One unlikely hit that has popped up during the pandemic is Netflix’s Kingdom, which comes from South Korea and was organically promoted on social media by such fans as Patton Oswalt. “Viewers say it has the action of The Walking Dead and the scope and scale of Game of Thrones,” Carlson said.
Finally, viewers frequently sought out rewatches, with people returning to Breaking Bad on Netflix as prequel Better Call Saul premiered season five on AMC. Many fans joined podcasts and other fan communities to join community rewatches.
For networks and streamers who don’t have fan engagement around shows, there might be an opportunity to lean into the things that might “make the show more relevant and palatable to audiences today,” said Carlson. “How can we watch these things together and what is the opportunity to build that infrastructure with fans? Streamers should think about what’s out there organically that I can amplify and build off of.”