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During the pandemic decade, I mean year, television gained value and importance for many people. Stuck at home, unable to go to restaurants, plays, the gym, and the office, they turned to the deep well of Peak TV as a means of distraction.
“What are you watching” became part of safely distanced daily exchanges, with everyone on the lookout for fresh material featuring unmasked characters and story lines from the Before Times. It was a good year for streaming services, in particular, as they had already-filmed content ready in their coffers, while the networks — operating on a shorter lead time — quickly ran out. At this point, though, even the streamers are scrambling to keep subscribers engaged and willing to pay, largely with global imports.
Throughout, the nightly news became a critical conduit of COVID-19 information — if you were watching channels or press conferences that weren’t denying the truth about the deadly virus. Viewers flocked to TV sources for information, especially early on when it was all so mysterious — before turning off the news in order to escape into the world of some scripted TV series.
Will this year have a long-term impact on TV as we know it? I don’t think our passion for sweetly distracting series (“Schitt’s Creek,” for example) will dominate once we’re safe again, but I do think a number of pandemic-related adaptations just might stick. Here are a few of them.
HOMEWARD BOUND: All the news shows began to bring us anchors (at first) and commentators live from their homes via Zoom, Skype, or another communication technology. Suddenly we were getting glimpses of the home lives of pundits and politicians, from their décor of choice to the titles of the books on their shelves. It provided a new kind of intimacy with professionals, in the same way work Zoom calls have with our co-workers. Surely that won’t end completely, since now everyone has a home “studio” of sorts and sees the benefits of not having to commute.
EYES OFF THE PRIZES: Viewers were already defecting from televised awards shows, as ratings for the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and Grammys had been dropping steadily for years. One reason is burnout from the overabundance of televised kudo-fests (People’s Choice Awards, Critic’s Choice Awards, SAG Awards, CMT Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards . . . I’ll stop now) in recent decades. Another is the consistent lack of mainstream award contenders, as entertainment has become so niche-oriented. And then with social media bringing us into the lives of celebrities, star-spotting shows can feel redundant and worse. Without live red-carpet excess over the past year, awards show ratings have plunged to record lows, and I don’t see that changing too much once the world resumes.
DON’T TAKE ME TO THE PILOT: Formerly, the networks would usually need to see a filmed pilot episode before sending that show into series production. But last year, with pilot season gone due to the pandemic, they began to order new series without seeing a sample episode. They began to throw caution to the wind — as Netflix has been doing for years — with the likes of “Clarice” and “The Equalizer.” This streamlined approach saves show creators months of waiting, and it cuts back on wasted energy — energy that can be channeled into COVID-safe sets. Going forward, the networks will be more willing to commission solely based on scripts and casting.
READING SHOWS: As streaming services have reached overseas for shows, now that they’re running low, more viewers have been getting used to subtitles. Shows such as “Lupin,” “Money Heist,” and “Call My Agent!” have climbed the most-watched lists, despite the language issue. Subtitles have long been a deal-breaker for so many viewers, but less and less so as desperation has nudged them to move past old habits. The success of “Parasite,” including an Oscar win for best movie, certainly helped set the stage for the shift.
CONSCIOUSNESS OF STREAM: In the Before Times, lots of people were stymied by the growth of the streaming world, with Peacock, HBO Max, Paramount+, and others joining the already established Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu. But as lockdown drove more viewers to TV, and as the networks failed to provide anything more engaging than reality TV and game shows, and with less consumer money spent in theaters and more movies premiering on streaming, many found the motivation to figure it all out (or get their kids to). Viewing habits changed during the pandemic, and the increasing willingness to pay for a month or two of a particular streamer is likely here to stay. Disney+ may have benefited most from the pandemic hunger for more TV; it recently announced that, in only 16 months, it had gained more than 100 million subscribers — a number it took the more pioneering Netflix 10 years to reach (it’s now at about 204 million).