When the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set-in, it was almost immediately clear that the circumstances would boost OTT streaming platforms. With movie theaters closing, live sports shuttering, and major events cancelling themselves one after the other, Netflix, Hulu, and the like offered a respite for those stuck at home, deprived of their traditional entertainment outlets. Now, prior to quarantine, it’s not as though streaming sites were seen as something niche, but the bump in engagement these platforms received was substantial, buoyed in part by the decision of film studios to release certain major releases directly to VOD.
This second ascendency for streaming is changing the way our industry views production and distribution, and — as if to put another button on the impact of the Netflixes of the world — Nielsen recently released its first ever list of top ten streaming programs.
While on the surface Nielsen’s decision to release this roster — the first of which covers the week of August 3 to August 9 — might seem like a minor note (perhaps a natural correction to the lack of these metrics in the past) it holds serious symbolic importance, and could even signal a broader shift in momentum and leverage within the industry. Nielsen has been providing television ratings since the 1950s, and their name has always been a stamp of legitimacy, even for those who weren’t exactly sure what the organization did or how you got a Nielsen box. But, as streaming has become an increasingly valuable asset across M&E, and proved to be an extremely effective means of distribution, Nielsen’s acknowledgement feels like both an official baptism of OTT productions and a signal to the industry that streaming should be receiving the same level of investment and attention as other television productions. After all, the support it’s provided to the industry in the last few months (and the degree to which it’s encompassed such a wide range of programming and purpose) is stunning.
While Nielsen’s metrics are primarily consumer facing, they do serve as a powerful measure of what sort of programming is succeeding and what is failing to connect. Streaming’s position within media is likely to be far different at the end of the pandemic than it was at the beginning, and major M&E businesses are quickly taking note. All the way back in March, Rita Ferro, Disney’s advertising sales president, wrote: “Across our entertainment brands we are seeing increased audiences and engagement on both our Linear and Digital platforms, inclusive of Hulu.” As the reopening of cinemas hiccuped across July and August, the House of Mouse boldly announced that “Mulan” — one of its most promising summer blockbusters, positioned to be a global phenomenon — would premiere directly on Disney+ beginning Friday, September 4.
If streaming is indeed likely to draw a larger amount of revenue based on habits built during the pandemic, then studios are likely to pour more and more money into their OTT platforms. Concordantly an emphasis on production models suited specifically to the OTT ecosystem could transform supply chains and distribution strategies, resulting in increased movement of content and focus on tighter deadlines and production schedules.
We’re not saying that this announcement from Nielsen is the catalyst for this — the beginning of the chain reaction that could ultimately remake what models content creators ultimately throw their weight behind — but rather, that the message it sends could either be a harbinger or an influencer in what happens next.