The pandemic that transformed TV and film – perhaps forever

Watching TV during lockdown. (Photo: Getty Images)
Watching TV during lockdown. (Photo: Getty Images)

From its start, television has offered itself as an entertaining distraction that viewers can depend on to escape the stresses and troubles of real-life, such as the rand-dollar exchange rate, a heart-wrenching breakup, global warming, the day Prince died, and now, Covid-19.

The alarming spread of the virus has led to sweeping changes across the board that demand an embrace (or at the least an abiding tolerance) of new social norms that have rapidly transformed our behaviour, and habits.

As millions of people across the globe are confined to their houses or encouraged to #stayathome, the abrupt, yet necessary shifts in how people consume media – especially TV and film – have already shown significant consequences.

THE END OF PEAK TV IS NIGH

In 2015, comedy actor Andy Samberg joked about the almost infinite number of TV shows in a sketch created for his opening monologue as the host of that year’s Emmy Awards.

It starts off with Andy at dinner with friends, where eyebrows are raised in pop culture judgement as it becomes clear he has not watched Mad Men. Or How to Get Away with Murder. Or the almost a hundred shows with Wives in the title. Feeling bummed out, he sequesters himself in a bunker (a clever play on the breakout show of the season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) to watch TV. All of it. A year later he emerges, a shell of a man, but all caught up and happy to know the backstory of every single housewife. That is until Nathan Fillion asks if he watched his show, Castle. Nope. Back to the bunker.

WATCH IT HERE:

In his own merry way, Samberg was saying: There’s just so much TV (maybe, definitely, too much TV) that the bubble will eventually pop. It’s a prediction John Landgraf, the CEO of FX Networks (home of shows like The Americans, Fargo, You’re the Worst, and American Horror Story) christened Peak TV. After this extraordinary cycle of swift and massive growth in the creation of original shows since 2013 (when streaming really took off with the hit House of Cards) a similarly fast decline will follow. The bubble, he said, would burst in 2018.

On the contrary.

Instead, in a race to win over viewers, empowered with increasing agency to pick and choose from the masses of content at their fingertips, networks produce even more shows.

The traditional TV medium, the TV as it were, is now also supplemented by online infrastructure, like one of the most successful networks, HBO, that started their online expansion years ago with HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO Max. A local version of this is DStv and DStv Now.

Then there’s the whopping $15 billion Netflix spent on show development and production last year alone. All in all, the number of original scripted series tallied a record of 532 shows in 2019. Worth noting: This number does not include anything unscripted like documentaries, reality TV, and news programs. What’s more: kids’ programming is also not added to the calculation.

Landgraf gamely admitted he was wrong, and in January of this year said he expects the total amount of shows to “increase substantially” in 2020.

He’s going to be wrong again.

In Europe, more than 1000 TV shows halted production when the threat of Covid-19 in an industry that demands that people work in very close proximity, became clear.

In the US, the impact includes delayed releases and new season premieres, cancelled productions of new pilots and shows slated to start airing in September (the start of the 2020/21 broadcast season) while other shows are being cut short with alternative endings. All this at a time when watching TV has become an activity basically equivalent to breathing.

To put this into perspective – global data measuring and analytics company Nielsen predicts “being home-bound could lead to almost a 60% increase in the amount of video content we watch globally.”

As the numbers continue to escalate, so slows internet speed. So much so that streamers like YouTube and Netflix reduced video quality across their global markets.

SO, DOES THAT MEAN WE'RE DOOMED TO RERUNS AND OLD SHOWS?

Calm all the way down.

TV writer and streaming news producer André-Pierre du Plessis says it’s highly unlikely, but streaming services like Netflix will almost certainly modify its release schedule; something they can easily do thanks to their binge-watching business model.

Netflix releases all its episodes simultaneously, so it needs full seasons to be locked and loaded before they are released: All they now have to do is press play. And then there is, of course, their aggressive investment in creating new content (honestly, I think $15 billion worth of TV and film content over the last year will keep us busy for a while.)

But, as Bloomberg’s entertainment business reporter Lucas Shaw says: “This is a blessing and a curse. In the short term, it [Netflix] will be putting more product into the world than any of its rivals. In the long term, it will struggle to keep up that pace.” For now, though, it is still able to release several shows per week. This includes new seasons of “Money Heist” and Ricky Gervais’ “After Life.”

But, never fear. As long as a world exists, so will the news.

If all else fails and you’ve become Andy Samberg circa 2015, you can watch the news. In fact, Du Plessis says, news and variety programs are struggling to keep up with the sheer multitude of news to report and content to create.

For “smaller players, and local stations that were struggling,” the demand for news reportage has been a boon. “Suddenly people are reaching out to them [for content].” As a producer on QuickTake, a news channel on social media that’s due for further online expansion this year, Du Plessis has seen the demand grow in real-time. “Last week was our best yet with the number of viewers we had on social media.”

WHAT ABOUT MOVIES?

Higher stakes are at play for behemoth film companies who face significant losses should their blockbusters not screen in theatres.

Even as cinemas have been forced to close and worldwide box office sales have lost billions in just a few months, some companies are holding out for their biggest films to have a cinematic release.

Movies like Top Gun:Maverick and Wonder Woman:1984 were poised to be this year’s biggest hits; potential earnings were estimated at over $500 million. To send it to streaming platforms where the earning potential is significantly less in the short, medium and long-term, seems ludicrous.

And yet, it’s the uncertainty of the situation that threatens to force their hand.

It’s a different story for indie filmmakers who were looking for distributors.

Du Plessis says that although he hopes it gives lower budget movies an advantage, the cancellation of almost all the film festivals for the foreseeable future means they might not be getting the best deal.

Festivals like SXSW are essential for filmmakers looking for distributors to get their film on screen.

In recent days, the films that were due to premiere at SXSW have found a home on Amazon Prime as part of a one-time online film festival, says Du Plessis. “It’s fantastic exposure, but who knows if someone could have gotten a better deal.” The terms of compensation, however, is unclear, leading some filmmakers to opt-out of the deal.

NEW DAYS, NEW WAYS

It’s too soon to tell which way the industry will pivot – and whether the effects in audience consumption and behaviour we’re seeing now will be evermore.

It’s a time that calls for innovative thinking and making the most of a bad situation.

Late night talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah are hosting shows from their homes, making do with what they have. While Fallon’s two daughters Winnie and Franny help him write jokes and his regular “Thank You Notes” inserts, The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah, has evolved from Instagram videos with Noah’s face too close to the screen, to a somewhat smoothly edited virtual spin-off series.

The show’s correspondents, including Dulcé Sloan and Roy Wood Jr, still explore topics in a chat/monologue format that usually takes place at the Daily Show desk. They’ve also resumed recording inserts – albeit inside their own homes.

WATCH HERE:

Trying to mimic the original format of the show, whilst simultaneously pointing out how absolutely abnormal the current situation is, is oddly comforting. And necessary – while TV as a whole provides escapism, comedy TV, especially late-night shows, is of critical cultural importance. Satirical commentary full of mirth and eyebrow-raising laughs as they make light of very real situations, relieves the weight of our collective and personal troubles and traumas. Late nights show hosts are important, and they have been since the advent of television.

Also making Lemon Drop Martinis with our abundance of lemons: later this month TLC will debut a new season of 90 Day Fiancé that’s more immersed in reality than this reality show has ever been: 90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined. The limited series will feature dozens of cast members of previous and currently airing seasons, and “through a combination of self-shot footage and remote video interviews with producers, viewers will follow along as our current and former couples navigate how to get through this time,” according to a press release.

Crises call for creativity of all kinds, and perhaps our greatest ally in this time is boredom. User-generated content is booming on every platform you can think of and a bunch more that you’ve never heard of. TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube – these platforms are exceeding their function as mediums for creative outlets.

Sometimes all you need to get through lockdown, is a video of someone else having a meltdown because Nando’s is closed.