With the debuts of Apple TV+ and Disney+, plus NBC’s Peacock and HBO MAX on the horizon, 2020 was already looking to be a big year for streaming media. But the COVID-19 outbreak unprecedentedly changed market outlooks across industries including media and entertainment. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming media is serving a substantial role in the media and entertainment landscape, bolstered by the necessity for social distancing.
Closure of theaters, suspension of major athletic leagues, and the delaying of film releases like “No Time to Die” and “Fast & Furious 9” are reshaping the media industry, forcing movie and television organizations to find or accelerate other ways to provide content to their audiences, especially as they get more and more isolated due to quarantine and shelter-in-place policies.
In 2016 CBS reported Sean Parker of Napster and SFX Entertainment’s Prem Akkaraju proposed an idea for what they called a “screening room” service. In their vision, households would pay $150 dollars for a special set-top box from which they would be able to access newly released films, the moment they debuted in theaters, and watch them from their living room couch for $50 apiece.
The idea was somewhat controversial — especially as filmmakers worried about declining theater attendance — and it never quite got off the ground. In the wake of COVID-19, however, audiences are seeing what might have been.
On March 16, NBC Universal announced that it would be making available via VOD three of its films which had only recently entered theaters: “The Hunt,” “Emma,” and “The Invisible Man.” For $19.99, viewers will be able to rent the film for a 48-hour period and stream it on a device of their choice. Simultaneously, Dreamworks Animation announced that its upcoming film “Trolls World Tour” would be released directly to streaming. Other studios and streaming platforms are now rushing digital releases for films ahead of previously scheduled dates, such as “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and Warner Bros’ “Birds of Prey” on iTunes, and “Frozen II,” on Disney+.
It’s not just the blockbusters that are allowing streaming to thrive during COVID-19. On March 14, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it would stream a number of upcoming productions, all for free.
While CatholicTV has streamed mass services for years, viewership is expected to grow as church closures continue, such as the recent announcements in Philadelphia and all throughout Ohio. Father Paul Ring of Saint Paul the Evangelist Parish in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts has seen this firsthand, since Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, authorized a temporary suspension of Mass on March 13. Father Ring, who has taped Mass for twenty-five years has used CatholicTV as well as Facebook Live to continue to connect with his parishioners. “[The services] have gotten a lot of views, a lot of likes, a lot of good comments — so it’s something that people are hungry for,” he explains.
As with any tectonic shift in society, adjustments and adaptations are essential. It’s truly incredible, though, how — under COVID-19 — so many of these major shifts have involved VOD and streaming media.
In an article published on March 16 entitled “Staying Put: Consumers Forced Indoors During Crisis Spend More Time on Media,” Nielsen predicted total TV viewing would leap by a daunting 60% due to COVID-necessitated isolation. While not unprecedented — Nielsen showed a 56% increase in total TV viewing during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017 and a similar 40% rise during January 2016’s New York City blizzard — it will be interesting to see exactly how streaming plays into global viewing figures when all is said and done. As far as Disney is concerned, the impact is already visible with Rita Ferro, Disney’s advertising sales president, writing in a blog published March 18: “Across our entertainment brands we are seeing increased audiences and engagement on both our Linear and Digital platforms, inclusive of Hulu.”
COVID-19 is changing the lives of people all around the world, exposing infrastructure shortcomings and pushing industries into precarious and transformative positions. The effects on content consumption, though perhaps not the most urgent, and by no means life-threatening, may augur important shifts within M&E as well as reveal audience behaviors in a far starker way than ever before.