The pandemic has uprooted so many aspects of daily life, including how television is produced and consumed. As Americans self-quarantine, they’re watching more content, and finding they enjoy new formats and genres. Some of these shifts could outlast the immediate crisis, and reshape the television landscape for years to come.
Before COVID-19, most talk and comedy shows taped in a studio, in front of a live audience, often beginning with a joke-heavy monologue. Today, hosts are stuck at home, and essentially livestreaming their shows, or doing webcam interviews with guests.
This type of production—and the serious tone of the times—might lead to changes in how viewers consume comedy. Hosts are tapping into more organic, situational humor: Jimmy Fallon on his porch, Stephen Colbert in his bathtub, and Jimmy Kimmel with his kids. Even when life goes back to a “new normal,” bringing in large studio audiences might be a thing of the past, so look for more comedy and talk shows to rely on these quieter, more intimate moments, in the spirit of a YouTube video. They also keep costs down, no small feat in an era of budget cuts, declining ad revenue and cord-cutting.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s “Tiger King” has emerged as the first true breakout hit of the COVID-19 era. How did an obscure docuseries with little to no pre-release hype end up breaking the Internet and garnering over 34 million unique views in its first 10 days of release?
First, it was an incredibly “social” show, generating more Twitter interactions than any other streaming or linear show. Everything about the show was meme-able, so quarantined viewers watched, posted, and inspired others to do the same.
Secondly, the tone was just right for the times. “Tiger King” was so riveting and absurd, it ended up being escapist, allowing coronavirus-crazy viewers to say, “As bad as my life is, at least I’m not as crazy as these people!”
What can marketers and content creators learn from this new era of production and distribution?
*Find the funny at home. Comedy for the foreseeable future will be one person at home finding humor in their situation, or talking to another person on Zoom. These conversations will be smaller, more empathetic, more timely, and might also contain useful information about COVID-19 prevention and care, especially for audiences tuning out news coverage and press conferences. Look for ways to have talent record these monologues and conversations from home, and lean into humor with heart and smarts.
*Seek out big characters. The two biggest TV stars of today are Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin of “Tiger King.” This harkens back to reality TV a decade ago, when the “Jersey Shore” gang, the “Duck Dynasty” family, and Honey Boo Boo ruled the airwaves. Viewers have gotten their fill of “relatable, everyday” characters in the vein of so many dramedies, and are back to wanting larger-than-life figures. Look on social media, gossip sites and tabloid sites like Daily Mail to find them.
*Boost viral potential. For the foreseeable future, critics’ screenings and tastemaker events won’t be feasible, or move the needle in getting viewers to sample a show. It will be all about word of mouth on social media. Look for talent and projects with viral potential—that people stuck at home will need to tell their friends about—and amplify this with meme marketing, hashtags and a social media campaign.
COVID-19 has changed the face of television, and producers and marketers must change with it, to give viewers the education, escapism and empathy they need now more than ever.