The pandemic signals a paradigm shift in the way we are informed and entertained
Covid-19 is undeniably accelerating change in the way we live. With billions of people forced to stay at home or with movement curtailed, one obvious change is the increase in media consumption. Most of this change is driven by digital services. Watching movies and other programming at home, or reading your favourite newspaper online, playing games or just chatting with family and friends—it’s made by possible by ubiquitous connectivity and multiple media devices. This is a paradigm shift in the way we are informed and entertained.
According to the results of a survey conducted by Statista during the first week of the nationwide lockdown, the rate of social media consumption went up by almost 75 per cent compared to the week preceding the lockdown. Obviously, with more time at hand, some of this is not surprising. Given an option to go out, many will spend their time elsewhere—work, commute, eating out and vacations. Of course, with malls and cafés either shut or open with various restrictions, there is so much more time at hand. With cinemas shut and no live entertainment, in-home entertainment is dominating our lives. For all purposes, the mobile phone has become the most watched screen in India in recent months.
At least 600 million people get all their information and entertainment from their mobile phones. It is not uncommon to walk down a street in any Indian town and you can watch people huddled together watching something intently on their phones. Many just listen to music. A report by eMarketer on how much time Indians spend in front of TV screens and mobile devices is quite revealing. ‘Adults in India will spend an average 3 hours, 45 minutes per day with traditional media in 2020, or 69.5% of their daily media time. Digital platforms will account for the remaining 30.5%, or 1 hour, 39 minutes. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we have increased our 2020 forecast for TV time spent growth by 4.5 percentage points to 7.5% growth. We also increased our estimate for time spent with smartphones in 2020 to 7.2%.’ Obviously, a large part of this time is perhaps sent in viewing content forwarded by others. Its these forwards, usually on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media, which break the value chain for all stakeholders in media and entertainment.
Let’s take cinemas, for example. It’s not that they are going to shut down. They will open soon with adequate safety protocols in place. Yet, it is hard to imagine theatrical viewing being the major source of movie-watching as it has been for over 100 years. It will be just one of the media options, specially for the larger-than-life storytelling and the big star-studded films or action adventures. As more bells and whistles (like Imax, Atmos, AR/VR) audience will go to cinemas for their monthly dose of social experience, now with enhanced safety precautions, I don’t deny viewing films on a large screen in a darkened auditorium is a participatory experience which generations of cinegoers are used to. This will change in the years to come. Let me share some numbers to put things in perspective. We all know that India is a hugely under-screened market with only 9,500 screens for its 1.3 billion people, and this number will not grow much now. Interestingly, even in these cinemas, on an annualised basis, only 30 per cent of the available seats are filled. Indians love movies but watch only two films per year on average owing to financial constraints. Not surprisingly, therefore, 400 million people watch television daily. Now the rise of non-theatrical exhibition driven by internet-based services is going to expand the market exponentially benefitting not only the creative fraternity but all other stakeholders. Do you know this year, digital media spend will overtake the film industry’s revenues?
Since the turn of the century, TV has been the most popular form of mass entertainment in India (elsewhere, the trend started in 1970s.) More than 80 per cent of the 300 million Indian households watch broadcast TV, and of this, about 200 million homes have access to satellite TV of some kind. Entertainment is an ethnocentric activity and satellite TV has ensured plurality and diversity of content conveniently. What appeared an unassailable medium a decade back is now vulnerable to technological upheaval. The pandemic has ushered in a social change much quicker than it would have happened. As a result of social distancing at home, consumers are spending more time online to virtually connect with others and stream entertainment. There is a pall of fear which overhangs the world. Till the availability of an inexpensive and reliable vaccine and effective treatment of Covid-19, this paranoia is not going away. No one is sure how many people will resume out-of-home activity anytime soon.
Owing to the rise of streaming services (strangely called OTT platforms in India), more and more people are spending lesser time watching linear TV. India today has over 600 million internet users with a large percentage in the rural areas. While broadband access is still patchy, dependent as it is to most users on wireless connectivity, more and more homes are being reached by fibre. For the first time, India has a digitally connected network which is empowering the new trend of at home viewing of content. Unlike broadcast TV or theatrical screening or even home video market, the digital universe is easy to slice or dice or aggregate depending on the content and its target consumer. Multiple language soundtracks, subtitles and varied genres of content available on tap at comparatively cheap prices is a huge differentiator. Most streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Hotstar, Zee 5 and MX Player can be watched from Rs 30 to Rs 200 per month, and usually on more than one device with a single subscription.
This opens up an untapped market for films, music, gaming, concerts and even information across geographies and psychographics. The Indian M&E (Media and Entertainment) Industry will finally start galloping at an annual growth rate of 15-20 per cent (CAGR) unleashing tremendous opportunities for creative professionals and entrepreneurs. Inequities of marketing and distribution will be much reduced thereby allowing lower breakeven for content creators. There is more scope for newer talent to blossom even as the audience gets a bigger spread of entertainment. Today, globally, the gaming Industry is far bigger than the film industry, but in India, it is still small business. If this sector alone grows like it has in many other Asian countries, we are talking of a multibillion-dollar industry. Similarly, niche content is very conveniently distributed online. The selling of rights and their protection is far easier in the digital world than before.
Let’s not confuse web-based entertainment with OTT. Everyone from mobile networks, DTH companies, broadcasters, publishers, music companies, concert organisers, even device manufacturers are jumping on to online entertainment. The pie is growing. The only elephant in the room is regulation. Government has to play the role of a facilitator and an overarching watchdog rather than the neighbourhood policeman. A consistent, forward-looking regulation is needed instead of restrictive and unfriendly content and carriage laws. Spectrum prices have to be reasonable and sharing of infrastructure has to be incentivised. There has to be closer cooperation between creators, content owners, platforms and the government. More bandwidth is required for easy connectivity, specially in the rural areas. Stable power and cheap devices are also essential for the rapid development of online services.
There are some issues which have come into focus in the last few weeks. Are theatres analogous with cinema? Will film business suffer if theatres remained shut? If films are exhibited on digital platforms, will cinemas close down? The answer to all this is no. What has started is an unstoppable trend of segmentation of the huge Indian marketplace. Theatres will always remain for that out-of-home experience of community watching in a darkened auditorium. Not all films released theatrically earlier, and now, even lesser number of films reach the theatres. Will the box office come down? In the short term, yes, and in the long term, no. Will the number of screens rise? Only marginally. Ninety per cent of filmed entertainment will be consumed by TV and online, of which TV’s share will fall by half in the next five years. Naturally, many channels which should not have been there in the first place, will close down. A few will survive online. Similarly, per capita Indian media spend cannot support more than a dozen major streaming services. The rest will either get bought out or simply vanish.
This brings us to talent. Well, first of all, let’s be clear that millions of people who think they are talented are actually not. Thousands are and they will benefit from this technological intervention. We will see the rise of trained professionals. The nepotism debate will carry on but newcomers will always rise and shine as they have done for a hundred years of cinema. In fact, today media is more democratic and open than ever before. However, unlike most other professions, filmmaking and its various activities does not require any qualification or licence to enter. The sheer glamour of showbiz attracts thousands of newcomers every day. Not all can succeed. They end up blaming the system, individuals and companies for their failure. Stupidly, the romance of a struggling aspirant in films has been over-romanticised in books, magazines, TV and even films. As Hollywood Actor Stewart Stafford aptly says, “No one remembers how you got a chance, they only remember what you did with it.” Just too many people are jostling for space on and off the screen. This often leads to discontent and frustration. At the end of the day, creativity has to be sustained by simple business rules and not altruism.
The rise of digital media has opened hitherto unknown opportunities of employment. There’s enough room for substantially more creative persons. We have seen even social media throw up stars in recent times. There are enough examples of crowdfunded content being streamed successfully on ad-supported services like YouTube and yet be remunerative. User-generated content can become a viable career option in some cases. The success of YouTube and Tik Tok are prime examples. Another interesting transition is in the outdoor advertising space—from simple hoardings to interactive OOH displays. In any competitive field, there is jostling fort space. So is the case with entertainment. Leveraging the power of digital is unleashing new potential even for conventional media like radio or theatre. Grabbing eyeballs and monetising them is critical today than ever before. Influencers, a much-used term for individuals with a very large following on social media, in today’s marketing jargon is one such monetisation opportunity.
There are two other media which are seeing cataclysmic changes and the pandemic has only opened the faultlines more. Print—newspapers and magazines will keep losing ground faster. They are not yet going out of business for a few years but both circulation and advertising will keep falling sharply. The vulnerable among the publications will wither away fast. Habits do change and the pandemic has in a way compelled people to give up some old habits. News and information will only increase. Today, people are au courant of how their life is impacted. A few publications (around the world) have managed to create a viable digital alternative to their printed form. Almost all have virtual presence but few have a business model online. In a matter of years, online curation of news will become the de facto news format. Newspapers and magazines must evolve into more analytical deliverers of news and information. Informed opinion and interpretation of news is what newspapers should offer their readers of tomorrow. Newsbreaks are best left to the more ephemeral social media and web.
The much touted 360-degree approach of large media organisations is a nonstarter. Different media address different audiences. The grammar and syntax of each media is different. Repurposing news in different media may extend reach but will hardly add to the bottom line. Millions of news sites are dishing out substandard stuff. There’s no reportage but self-opinionated pontification or regurgitation of news from other sources. No wonder 99 per cent of these ventures are doomed. The new reality has altered the manner and quantity of news people consume. As far as TV news channels go, they are not even pretending to be giving news. Well-clad, pompous gladiators, aka anchors and editors, are busy with assorted ninjas in shouting matches every night. Who know how long will this charade amuse the audience? If it’s about abuse, allegation and trolling, then it might as well happen online. Social media, anyway, is ripe for a battle of bots.
One thing is certain: the present crisis is accelerating a shakeout in the business of news.
A big casualty of the pandemic has been the thriving live entertainment Industry. No doubt we have hundreds of concerts, conferences and performances happening virtually. I am sure it’s a matter of time where event managers and impresarios configure a new way out of the present impasse. My hypothesis is that much of live engagement will remain online in future too but we should see reimagined events taking place in a few months. Perhaps not the very large congregations but events which are more contained and amenable to safety protocols.
Leisure fulfilment is humanity’s primordial attribute. This business will only grow. The rules of the game are being rewritten. It’s up to the players and spectators to adapt. Or disappear. As playwright John Guare (Six Degree of Separation) says: “It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.”