Obviously, it’s a long way back to the days when three major networks accounted for the vast majority of viewing, though it’s worth noting that period existed in the lifetimes of adults over 35. Even a decade ago, a random group of strangers, say, serving jury duty would probably have at least a few common programs they shared or with which they were familiar.
Increasingly, that’s not the case. Host a dinner party now (OK, a virtual dinner party), and the odds are pretty good you won’t have heard of most shows that other people enjoy, much less watch them. The information superhighway, as it was once called, has led to a digital Tower of Babel.
Early in the pandemic, it was popular to joke about having spent so much time cooped up home as to have exhausted the Netflix library. Based on one’s specific interests, that’s perhaps true.
The bigger picture, however, reflects a bountiful supply of content for practically every taste, with the main factors being how to sift through the vast menu in order to find it, and how much people are willing and able to pay to access it.
In 2020, years of such splintering and audience fragmentation evolved further. The cable bundle saw people continue cutting the cord, while major studios and tech giants lined up to establish their own version of Netflix — creating direct relationships with consumers — by launching new services, following the late-2019 introduction of Disney+ and Apple TV+.
More recent arrivals like HBO Max (a unit of WarnerMedia, as is CNN) and Peacock have joined the streaming skies, vying with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and a soon-to-be-rebranded CBS All Access.
Despite a pandemic that has slowed and staggered production. the flow of fresh content never seems to stop. Critically speaking, it has made the challenge of choosing what programs to highlight considerably more challenging. Nor does it help that streaming services remain stingy about providing specific user data, leaving media outlets to guess at what shows are resonating with the public beyond anecdotal clues, like all that Baby Yoda merchandise.
On its face, this explosion of options should be welcome. Yet the old dilemma of paying for a cable or satellite package and watching only a dozen or so of the channels has shifted to deciding how many streaming subscriptions a consumer needs to get all the programs they want, and at what point that becomes just as expensive, and potentially less manageable.
The impact of coronavirus played an unanticipated role in all this during 2020, starting with the fact that people spent more time at home, looking for ways to amuse and distract themselves. If streaming was destined to partially cannibalize movie-going, that process was hastened, though the extent to which those effects are temporary — as opposed to permanently taking root — remains to be seen.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, we don’t know what’s lost as the media world — like the political one — fractures and people keep retreating into their own narrow bubbles and silos. Pop culture was already fairly tribal, a trend likely to speed up when “Star Wars” or “Star Trek,” Marvel or DC, live on different services, with those entire collected worlds just a click away.
The advantages associated with that are obvious: Having more of what you want, when you want it.
The costs and tradeoffs remain harder to discern, from the economic to the sociological. All we really know is after a year spent staring into screens, understanding the ripple effects of changes in how we receive and consume entertainment will probably be clearer the benefit of 2020 hindsight.