By Catherine Johnson and Lauren Dempsey, University of Huddersfield, UK

As new social restrictions are imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19, it will be no surprise if people once again turn to their TV screens for entertainment and companionship. In the UK, as the days turn darker and colder, popular favourites including The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing have made welcome returns, providing comfort and familiarity.

But along with the old favourites, our research shows how TV watching might be different this year. In May 2020 we returned to 28 UK-based participants we had previously interviewed in August 2019. By re-visiting the same people in this manner, it was possible to develop a deeper understanding of how COVID-19 and the numerous social changes it caused led to an alteration in habitual TV viewing. What we found helps to explain why TV viewing surged during lockdown and why streaming services, including Netflix and YouTube, are better placed than public service broadcasters to benefit from our changing viewing habits.

In the UK, TV viewing went up overall during the spring lockdown. But the greatest growth was in subscription video on demand (SVOD), while increased viewing for live TV was primarily driven by news consumption. After lockdown was relaxed, it was streaming that retained its uplift, with time spent watching broadcast TV gradually declining back to 2019 levels.

Our research found that Coronavirus changed people’s reasons for watching TV. Whereas before it was often associated with distraction and unwinding, the people we spoke to were rife with anxiety and turned to TV to relieve the stress of COVID-19. Television provided a sanctuary during lockdown for those seeking familiar and ‘safe’ content, or an escape from the realities of the pandemic. They valued companionship much more than before, regularly viewing at home with family. TV became more of a talking point – within the household and on social media – generating a sense of connection with others. Online streaming services were particularly effective at fulfilling these anxiety-reducing needs – seen as safe spaces to find content that everyone could enjoy.

Whereas before it was often associated with distraction and unwinding, the people we spoke to were rife with anxiety and turned to TV to relieve the stress of COVID-19.

By contrast, the strong association of public service broadcasters as the go-to source of trusted information made broadcast TV a less safe viewing space. Our participants discussed having to regulate their TV news consumption because of the emotional distress it caused. This was exacerbated by a perception that public service broadcasters were unable to generate new content, ceasing production of beloved soaps operas, dramas and sports coverage. These broadcasters became synonymous with repeats and news, driving our participants to seek alternatives from streaming services.

This was a stark contrast to how participants felt about public service broadcasters just a year before. When we first interviewed them in the summer of 2019, most participants associated the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 with quality, unique content. Many were habitually engaging with free-to-air channels, keeping track of new releases and making time to enjoy new and plentiful series.

Participants regularly planned their evenings around ‘event’ TV, placing public service broadcasters at the centre of their viewing. However, during lockdown even the most committed viewers were exasperated with the limited offerings of the traditional channels. One 67-year-old woman lamented: ‘they’re all repeats!’

This issue was amplified by an increased engagement with online streaming services during lockdown, where we noted a significant increase in use by viewers of all ages. Participants who had previously only dabbled with the likes of Netflix and YouTube suddenly found them essential. Others who had previously never watched streamed programming were introduced to new material, often by their children, who signed them into their own accounts and gave them a crash-course in how streaming works.

One 54-year-old woman, who previously had little interest in television at all, was introduced to the wealth of Bollywood content available on Netflix by her adult children seeking shared viewing. There were also participants who had previously relied on their partners to find them content who were now browsing new and exciting content online.

The future for public service broadcasters?

As a result, public service broadcasters face new challenges as they try to entice people back from their online rivals. But as they begin to produce and air new content – including regular favourites – it is likely that many viewers will happily resume their longstanding engagement with public service programming.

Yet whereas public service channels were once the ‘go to’ – sometimes the only – source of quality content for some, a whole new world of online viewing has opened up for viewers across all demographics, and the competition level is high.

Public service broadcasters need to re-evaluate the relationship between linear and on-demand. Our study showed that linear TV remained a habitual part of TV viewing for most participants. But when they failed to find something to watch on linear, they favoured SVOD services like Netflix over the public service broadcasters’ video-on-demand services like iPlayer.

Public service broadcasters need to re-evaluate the relationship between linear and on-demand.

Across both waves of the research, broadcasters’ video-on-demand services tended not to be perceived as places to browse for new content, instead retaining their longstanding associations as sites to catch-up on linear programming.

What can public service broadcasters do to address these challenges? Through marketing and user interface design, public service broadcasters could to more to communicate the value of their on-demand services as places to find rich, deep and varied catalogues of content that meet a wider range of viewing needs than SVOD.

As people spend less time on linear TV, they encounter fewer on-air trailers for public service programming. This makes marketing beyond linear TV more important. On their own video-on-demand services, broadcasters should shift from an approach to trailers developed for linear, where trailers play before a selected programme, to an on-demand approach, where trailers can be actively selected by users from within the user interface. This strategy, adopted by Netflix, was highly valued by our participants.

There’s also a role for policymakers and regulators here. Transnational streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, operate at a scale that national broadcasters cannot compete with, and without the same regulatory oversight. Regulators need greater access to the proprietary data and algorithms of streaming services in order to be able to evaluate their impact on national broadcasters.

Public service broadcasting is a ‘merit good’ which means that it creates positive benefits for society and democracy but is likely to be under-consumed if not freely and easily accessible. Revised prominence legislation is needed to ensure that public service programming is accessible and easy to find in on-demand environments, including on streaming platforms like YouTube.

Linear and on-demand TV are likely to continue to coexist for a number of years. Our research suggests that as people integrate on-demand into their habitual viewing, their relationship with linear TV and public service broadcasters is weakened. If we value the benefits of public service broadcasting we need to create the conditions for it to thrive online.

This post is based on an article published in The Conversation.


Header Image: London, UK: BBC Broadcasting House in central London. Credit: oversnap/iStock