As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the entertainment industry is seeing profound change. And while several other industries struggle, tech-led entertainment is booming
New buzzwords continue to be coined by experts across industries offering a peek into the ‘post-COVID-19’ world, and discourse on what the ‘new normal’ will look like is aplenty.
And while the world lives through this upheaval and grapples with ‘flattening the curve’, certain other curves or trends continue to defy expectations—especially as they relate to the adoption of certain technologies—and are already having profound implications.
These trends relate to how we experience content, and might continue to do so even on the other side of the pandemic.
Entertainment as we knew it
New mobile app downloads exceeded 31 billion in the three months ending 31 March—by which time COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine had reached most parts of the world—up 15% from the previous quarter. This is hardly surprising, given most of us have been cooped up in our homes, with more time on our hands in the absence of regular commutes to our workplaces and institutions of learning.
Two over-the-top (OTT) video streaming apps—Netflix and Disney+—ranked 3rd and 7th in terms of consumer spend, with Netflix also ranking 9th for total number of downloads.
With a slew of new video and music streaming services like HBO Max and Peacock by NBC Universal slated for launch beyond the US, the OTT streaming media space will see fierce competition.
This trend comes at a time when cord-cutting or suspension of linear and cable TV subscriptions has been on the rise – well before the crisis had set-in. The lack of any live sporting events in the wake of the pandemic has only exacerbated the phenomenon.
Strict social distancing measures beyond the lockdown will imply that box-office sales for new films will be a fraction of the pre-COVID-19 era. Titles will be made available sooner on streaming services as a way to offset the revenue loss, and gain market share in streaming. Indeed, we are starting to see this happen already in markets like India with some big-ticket films slated for release on Amazon Prime and Disney+Hotstar.
With production of new films and shows on hold, content libraries of popular television series and films from the likes of Disney and HBO will serve as a means of competitive advantage. Low budget films from smaller studios and independent producers which relied almost entirely on ticket sales, will prefer offloading their content to streaming services over waiting for theatre screenings to resume. There has to be more content to continue the streaming engine running. These are signs that more consolidation in the sector is in the offing.
Social networks become more social
Consider the experience of jostling for space and knocking elbows with strangers in an open-air concert with your favourite artist crooning on a giant stage. Will we be able to relive this social side of an entertainment experience? Germany recently gave us a glimpse of what such gatherings might look like with a recently held concert with safe distancing measures and an EDM (electronic dance music) party, albeit a drive-in one. Human experience, especially of the non-essential variety, is being redefined at a fundamental level and there may be no going back, especially if it relates to large congregations of people.
As much as our mobile devices have become quintessential to our existence during the lockdown, the yearning for collective social experiences have resulted in uses of applications such as Zoom, the popular video conferencing app, that could not have been fathomed at the time the enterprise-grade application was being developed.
Consider the likes of Epic Game’s Houseparty having added an additional 50 million users and seen a 1,000% plus increase in downloads since lockdown restrictions were implemented.
Initial enthusiasm around social interactions like ‘Zoom Parties’ may be waning though as people begin to realise the limitations to their social experience over video conferencing. As the Economist had observed recently, most cultures observe a conversational rule of “no gap, no overlap”. Despite the various stereotypes that exist about taciturn or interrupting ethnicities, turn-taking is well-organised and almost instantaneous from Mexico to Denmark to Japan. And such spontaneity remains the hallmark of ‘real conversations’ that people are hoping will return, with the easing of lockdowns.
On the other hand, improved bandwidth, data connectivity and encryption in the underlying technology will hopefully address some of the limitations, even as people limit the use eventually to work or learning.
Meanwhile, our favourite musicians and DJs are crooning over streaming feeds crowding up our social media timelines, jostling for our attention amidst other stills of different cohorts of people coming together for work and play over Zoom.
Another tour de force has been the rise and rise of TikTok from ByteDance, arguably the most popular global app of Chinese origin, which has transformed storytelling with people finding a multitude of new ways to express themselves in 60-second videos.
What is unusual about TikTok is that it’s not another place to see what’s happening. It is a distilled expression of how people are feeling. TikTok is the first entertainment powerhouse born in and built for the smartphone age — and it might just rewire storytelling as we know it.
Games people play
Already bigger than streaming, mobile gaming apps have also experienced a significant rise in demand, particularly those with a social element – massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Guild Wars 2 and Dungeon Fighter Online, for example. That demand is more pronounced in countries that have implemented stricter social distancing measures. Gaming is going beyond the younger demographic, as major sporting events turn virtual while in-game experiences begin to include the likes of a live music concert within.
The increasing sophistication of new gaming hardware is also expected to help bring more players online, spearheaded by virtual reality (VR) and artificial reality (AR) headsets like Facebook’s latest Oculus Quest, which bring a totally different wireless gaming experience to consumers who are no longer tethered to either PCs or game consoles.
Parallel growth in cloud game streaming services—including PlayStation Now, Microsoft’s Project xCloud, GeForce Now and Google Stadia—which deliver big budget, high resolution 4K titles that can be played on relatively low specification smartphones, VR/AR headsets and other mobile devices will also bring more consumers onto 4G/5G connected gaming platforms.
What will fizzle, and what will remain
Our definition of what is normal is being reset and most of us are still living this reality. We are far from the post-COVID-19 reality that we now so often read or hear about. Some of these trends may just outlive the pandemic, especially as we witness the advent of new enablers like 5G, IoT and mass adoption of smart devices – mechanisms that can keep us safe.
Rather inadvertently, COVID-19 has provided a fillip to some industries. Where trends were gradual, they have accelerated; and new trends have emerged. But even in the so called ‘new normal’, life will gradually start looking like what it did prior to this pandemic in many ways. Will these changes in behaviour stick on the other side?
I’d like to think so. I believe what we may have experienced on the eve of the year 2020 might continue to be etched in our memories as more memorable an experience than we would have believed until recently.