It’s been just over nine months since the UK entered its first COVID-19 lockdown (time flies when you’re stuck indoors…) With significant restrictions on how we can spend our leisure time, it’s not surprising to hear that we are watching more television than we have done in years. TV studies scholars rejoice – we’ve never been more relevant!
According to an August 2020 report from Ofcom, during the first lockdown people were ‘spending six hours and 25 minutes each day on average – or nearly 45 hours a week – watching TV and online video content – a rise of almost a third (31%) on last year’ (Ofcom, 2020).
But it’s not just how much time we spend watching TV that is changing. What we’re watching appears to be changing as well. Indeed, the same Ofcom report found that this recent rise in viewing was largely ‘driven by a demand for trusted news programmes as the pandemic grew’ (Ofcom, 2020). At the same time, however, the report draws attention to a somewhat different pattern in consumption – namely, a significant rise in the consumption of box sets of drama series on VOD platforms such as All 4 and the BBC iPlayer, so much so that the latter ‘attract[ed] a record 570 million programme requests in May 2020 – 72% higher than in May 2019’ (Ofcom, 2020). Normal People and Killing Eve were singled out in the report as two of the biggest contributors to these record viewing figures, and while they might not seem like obvious examples of comfort TV at first glance, comfort often stems from our familiarity with the text and the characters rather than its subject matter (as has been noted in several recent posts on this blog – more on this in a moment).
What these recent viewing figures seem to suggest is that we are more abreast with current events than ever before, but this is being matched by a growing appetite for escapism. For many, comfort TV is the antidote to current affairs. And understandably so.
These recent changes in TV viewing behaviour have been the subject of a number of excellent and insightful contributions to this very site over the past several weeks. Many of these posts have drawn on personal experiences to elucidate the various reasons as to why we find such solace in comfort TV – especially now (for example Rebecca Williams’ post on the pleasures of re-watching The West Wing or Ross Garner’s discussion of the therapeutic value of re-watching post-apocalyptic sci-fi). Others have noted the way that streaming platforms are borrowing the conventions of broadcast TV by developing new features that enable and encourage viewers to “watch together”, creating communal experiences when we most need them (for example, the recent piece by Matthew Price which examines collective viewing practices from the point of view of an undergraduate student).
Even mainstream publications have been getting in on the act, including Kyle Chayka’s recent yet already infamous piece in The New Yorker in which he uses Emily in Paris to argue that Netflix is pioneering a new genre of “ambient television”; a genre that seems to share many of the characteristics of comfort TV (suitable for background viewing, not too narratively complex, available for binge-viewing, featuring more levity than dramatic tension, visually hypnotic, etc.) Of course, his account has already attracted considerable criticism because it essentially describes what television has always been doing and, worse still, because it fails to acknowledge that the concept of “ambient television” has been around for decades, most notably in the form of Anna McCarthy’s 2001 monograph of the same name. In any case, it’s safe to say that there is a lively, distinct and diverse body of work emerging around television in the time of COVID-19 [i] – every cloud has a silver lining!
Like many others, I too have been re-watching old favourites (Justified, Band of Brothers – who knows what that says about me). And whilst I could dissect my own comfort TV viewing here, I feel as though the reasons that I’ve returned to these shows have already been identified and eloquently examined in other contributors’ posts. As such, I want to offer a slightly different view of COVID-TV (for want of a better term). Rather than considering it from the perspective of the viewer / audience, I want to consider it from the perspective of the broadcaster / platform.
In doing so, I want to propose (and hopefully answer) a number of related questions: what exactly are platforms such as the BBC iPlayer offering us and how, if at all, have these offerings changed since COVID-19 began? Are we being offered more current affairs and box sets, as the Ofcom report suggests we might be, or are we actively seeking out these genres ourselves? What other trends or anomalies might we find? These questions are posed in the spirit of expanding our thinking around television viewing behaviours during the time of COVID-19 (and beyond) by including a more industry/platform-oriented perspective that draws our attention to the role that interfaces play when it comes to the “discoverability” (Lobato, 2018) and consumption of content.
In terms of method, I’m able to shed light on these questions by utilising a dataset of the BBC iPlayer interface that I’ve been compiling over the last two or three years. The dataset in question is comprised of a daily “scrape” of the main landing page of the interface, which captures a range of different variables (date of scrape, title of programme, synopsis, availability, genre, category, etc.) Given that there is a fairly limited degree of personalisation on the BBC iPlayer (certainly compared to platforms such as Netflix) [ii] the data, and the insights that it offers, is broadly applicable to the average iPlayer user’s experience.
So what does it tell us? The first and perhaps most surprising pattern in the data is that the number of box sets on offer via the iPlayer interface has notably declined since lockdown 1.0. Prior to March 23rd, 2020 (going back to August 18th, 2018), there were an average of 40.89 box sets offered each day on the iPlayer (out of a total of 120 titles – so just over a third of all offerings). From March 23rd, 2020 onwards, this dropped to an average of 37.32 box sets offered each day. This might not seem like a significant decline, but the overall trajectory is continuing downwards (and doesn’t look like stopping any time soon). Indeed, if we just measure from July 1st, 2020 onwards then the average decreases even further to 34.76 box sets per day. For October 2020 (the last full month in the dataset) the average is down to just 29 box sets a day.
This decline in box set offerings is contrary to what we might expect, and certainly contrary to the viewing behaviours described in the Ofcom report. If anything, it suggests that where there’s a will, there’s a way: if viewers are hungry enough for comfort TV (i.e. box sets) they will seek them out regardless of what the interface is prioritising. As such, it could be argued that, in this instance at least, the role of the interface is less important than we might expect when it comes to “discoverability” and what the user eventually selects.
A second and somewhat less surprising pattern that emerges is the increased prominence of certain genres from lockdown 1.0 onwards. By “prominence” I’m referring to the daily average vertical (column) and horizontal (row) position of where genres appear within the interface (a 12 x 10 grid) – the lower the score, the more visible the genre. Notably, factual genres such as news, current affairs and documentary are all more “prominent” after March 23rd, 2020. News, in particular, jumped from the 17th most prominent genre (out of 24) to the third most prominent genre in the period after March 23rd, 2020. This suggests that there was a concerted effort by the BBC to prioritise news and other current affairs within the interface during this period.
Prominence is only one metric, however. If we focus instead on the frequency of genre (i.e. how many times a genre appears within the interface) then a very different picture emerges. From this perspective, we can see that comedy dominates the iPlayer’s offerings (comprising of around 20% of all content pre and post lockdown 1.0 – see image below).
What this particular example tells us is that comedy is the most common genre but not the most prominent one. Thus, in order to more accurately gauge the “discoverability” of content on the iPlayer, I would argue that we need to create a metric that takes into consideration both the count and the prominence of a genre (i.e. count divided by prominence). Doing so changes the picture once more, with documentary a particular beneficiary of this new metric:
The above graph shows the overall “discoverability score” of genres across the entire dataset (from August 2018 to November 2020) but we can also examine how these scores have changed pre and post lockdown 1.0. Doing so reveals some other interesting changes. In particular, it highlights the rise and fall of the “discoverability score” of certain genres. Whilst some remain roughly where they were before and after lockdown 1.0 (e.g. comedy, drama, documentary) others have either become much more discoverable (sci-fi, comedy drama, beauty) or significantly less discoverable (sport, CBBC, CBeebies). In terms of the latter, it’s not surprising that the discoverability of sport declined (given that most of it stopped) but it is surprising to see that children’s television programming was less discoverable from lockdown 1.0 onwards (just when we needed it the most!)
There are numerous other ways that we could use this data to examine patterns and differences in interface offerings pre and post lockdown (or across any other period of our choosing). But for me, these changes in the prominence, popularity and discoverability of genres, as well as the somewhat unexpected decline in box set offerings, represent some of the most interesting and most pronounced features of the data.
But how do we interpret these findings? For one thing, the decline of box sets suggests that users have a high degree of agency when browsing and selecting titles – box sets are appearing less often, yet we seem to be watching them more often. However, this evidence of user agency is contradicted by the fact that viewers are also choosing to watch the content that is being most heavily promoted (e.g. news and current affairs). Of course, it’s entirely possible that users would still seek out this content even if it weren’t prominently featured. Perhaps the only way we can really understand the dynamics of interfaces is to develop a more holistic approach that combines this data with other quantitative and qualitative research [ii] – for example by including actual viewing figures as well as individual accounts of why people choose to watch certain programmes or genres. But even without these other data, an analysis of the interface itself can still tell us a great deal about the strategies and values of platforms such as the BBC iPlayer.
JP Kelly is a lecturer in film and television at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Time, Technology and Narrative Form in Contemporary US Television Drama (Palgrave, 2017). He has published essays in various books and journals including Ephemeral Media (BFI, 2011), Time in Television Narrative (Mississippi University Press, 2012), Convergence, and Television & New Media. His current research explores a number of interrelated issues including narrative form in television, issues around digital memory and digital preservation, and the relationship between TV and “big data”.
Chayka, Kyle (2020) ‘“Emily in Paris” and the Rise of Ambient TV’. The New Yorker, 16 November. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/emily-in-paris-and-the-rise-of-ambient-tv[Accessed 19/11/2020]
Garner, Ross (2020) ‘Negotiating a Pandemic Through Cult TV: Survivors, Ontological Security and Horror’. CST Online, 30th October. https://cstonline.net/negotiating-a-pandemic-through-cult-tv-survivors-ontological-security-and-horror-by-ross-garner/ [Accessed 19/11/20]
Lobato, Ramon (2018) ‘On Discoverability’. Flow, 29 May. https://www.flowjournal.org/2018/05/on-discoverability/ [Accessed 19/11/2020]
McCarthy, Anna (2001) Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Moore, Charlotte (2019) A new vision for iPlayer, a new future for BBC television. 18 October. https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/speeches/2019/charlotte-moore-iplayer [Accessed 19/11/2020]
Ofcom (2020) ‘Lockdown leads to surge in TV screen time and streaming’, 5 August. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2020/lockdown-leads-to-surge-in-tv-screen-time-and-streaming [Accessed 19/11/2020]
Price, Matthew (2020) ‘What has TV Consumption Been Like for a New Television Production Student During a Lockdown?’ CST Online, 6 November. https://cstonline.net/what-has-tv-consumption-been-like-for-a-new-television-production-student-during-a-lockdown-by-matthew-price/ [Accessed 19/11/2020]
Williams, Rebecca (2020) ‘Emotional Consolation, Political Escapism and Post-Object Fandom: Re-watching and re-staging The West Wing in 2020’. CST Online, 13 November. https://cstonline.net/emotional-consolation-political-escapism-and-post-object-fandom-re-watching-and-re-staging-the-west-wing-in-2020-by-rebecca-williams/ [Accessed 19/11/2020]
[i] In addition to the examples mentioned above, there are numerous other excellent posts that have examined practices of binge-watching and/or comfort TV from different perspectives, e.g., Elke Weissmann’s ‘Is it Time Yet – to Grieve?’, Morgan Wait’s ‘Reruns: Normal People and Outrage Discourse Across Time’, Kenneth Longden’s ‘Crime TV, Part One’, and last but by no means least, ‘The Year that Was (Or, How TV Kept Me Sane During a Pandemic)’ in which Kim Akass poses a number of really important questions about the role of television scholarship during the age of COVID-19.
[ii] As Charlotte Moore, director of content explains: “[the] iPlayer is curated… it’s a cutting edge tech platform – but it’s run by humans. Not assembled by algorithm – but carefully curated by people…” (Moore, 2019).
[iii] In terms of qualitative research, see Cathy Johnson and Laura Dempsey’s ongoing work on television viewership during COVID-19: https://www.publicmediaalliance.org/how-coronavirus-might-have-changed-tv-viewing-habits-for-good-and-what-that-means-for-public-service-broadcasting/