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  • Ally Castle

When this is over, we will enjoy….

Early thoughts on post-corona content & storytelling

We have a jar in our kitchen with a label on it that reads: When this is over, we will enjoy… In it are yellow slips of paper on which we write our post-lockdown hopes and plans, the things that two months ago were pretty standard activities but which we can now only dream of. It’s a way of getting through, of managing the current uncertainty and of giving us some sense of comfort and feeling that there will be a future.

In a similar way, now that the dust has settled on the initial shoot cancelling, frantic schedule shuffling, and rapid commissioning of Zoom-enabled content, the TV industry is turning its mind to what audiences are likely to want and need in a post-corona world. We know that when this crisis passes (however we will even define that) it will have changed us, individually and corporately. Covid-19 will have far-reaching emotional, social, financial, cultural and demographic consequences. But what, if anything, will that mean for our viewing behaviours and tastes?

Of course, it’s impossible to say at this stage, definitively. And certainly to ask the audience directly. Although we’re no longer fighting the first outbreak of the fire, we are still very much putting out the flames. We’re not ready to think about how we might redecorate the kitchen. But there is no harm in some informed hypotheses and extrapolations, if only as a basis for opinions and perspectives to evolve from as things unfold.

So, for what they are worth, here are my 10 hunches for post-corona viewing - as things stand today.

1. Appetite for content will wane, but stay higher than pre-covid levels.

We’ve seen unprecedented levels of viewing of both broadcast and VOD content, particularly among young audiences. As lockdown lifts and people can more freely and regularly leave their homes, we can’t expect this to be maintained. We will want to be out and about, spending time with loved ones and socially interacting as much as we can. However, content will still play a key part in our time spent. Not just because out-of-home entertainment options and events are likely to be the last businesses to reopen, but because we will be in a deep economic recession. More people at home more often means more viewing. We need to be ready to meet expectations and offer a range of content types and tones, even in a world where big new scripted projects remain on hold. Archive, back catalogues, re-purposed content and new shows able to be made under social distancing conditions will be key to feeding the demand, and the pipeline needs to be well supplied.

2. The shared experience that linear TV brings will be more appreciated.

We are likely to be starved of real-world live events and large physical gatherings for quite some time. But now that we are all in this together and the disunity of Brexit seems like a distant nightmare, broadcast TV will offer us one of very few opportunities for shared experiences in large numbers. Whilst the rise of boxset binging and VOD grazing will have been permanently accelerated by covid-19, it will also have highlighted the value of being together – in other words, being a part of something at the same time others. We miss sport, we miss festivals, we miss concerts. And we will surely miss Britain’s Got Talent this next half term and, heaven forbid, possibly even Strictly this autumn. The sense of large-scale shared experience we can enjoy via TV can and should help to plug that gap - if broadcasters & platforms can get the content, stories and experiences right around which they want us to coalesce.

3. Corona-related content will need to be authentic and sensitive.

There is bound to be initial corona fatigue, if that hasn’t begun to happen already (as reflected in news consumption reaching a peak in the first few weeks of lockdown and already declining). As with any major negative event, the immediate psychological response is to want to forget about – or at least escape from – it as soon as possible. But in time, there will be a desire to digest what has happened to us through content - from current affairs, to factual, to scripted pieces. But although corona has united us, it hasn’t impacted us all in similar ways. There are roughly two types of experience: those who have been at the frontline, who will emerge traumatized and whose lives will never be the same again. And those who have stayed (literally) on the home front - inconvenienced, disrupted and frustrated, but who can, in time, look forward to a “back to normal” life. We need to reflect both experiences, but also be conscious that those who are traumatized may well not want to re-live events and emotions for quite some time. And we will need to develop and commission corona-related content sparingly. Here, less will be more.

4. Audiences will want to escape all the more.

When everyday life is tough, it’s natural to want to take a break from the outside world and escape into alternative worlds and realities. That doesn’t always mean indulging in happier, funnier, cosier times - although genres like period dramas or scripted comedies are likely to do well. The impressive human capacity to tell ourselves that, whatever our circumstances, things could be even worse (or is it just good old-fashioned British resilience?) can also mean embracing even darker, more challenging narratives than we’re seeing played out around us in real life. If we can’t make new large-scale thrillers, dystopian films or crime dramas for quite some time, then archive and acquisitions are going to play an important part in satiating our appetite for being totally absorbed by the gritty and even the grim.

5. Familiarity will win out in a time of uncertainty.

As we try to make sense of our post-lockdown lives, we are bound to want to hold on to the few things that we do know for sure. Whether classic comedies in the archive, familiar talent who have not let us down in the past, the welcome return of big entertainment brands or the regularity of daytime staples, audiences will want comfort. New projects, if they can get to air, may be hard to sell in without a hook which helps viewers feel at ease, reassured that they know what to expect.

6. Zoom will be part of the visual diet, but high production values will be welcomed back.

It’s true that over the last few weeks audiences have become used to badly-lit and appallingly-framed headshots from dining rooms, studies and spare bedrooms up and down the nation. But that doesn’t mean they like it. Lo-fi is fine under the circumstances, but video call- and smart phone-led filming is unlikely to become standard. It will be more acceptable as part of a mix of shooting styles, but as soon as we get back to high end filming modes, whether in studio or on location, audiences will revel in what will feel like a feast for the eyes and ears. High production values will always win out. Zoom is not the new normal.

7. A shift in topics of interest, to plug gaps of what we’re missing and reflect new attitudes.

When it comes to subject matter for stories, our thoughts on or approaches towards many topics are likely to have shifted as a result of corona, which format and films will need to be mindful of.

Top of the list here are the things that we will be unlikely to be doing in real life, but which TV can help us to experience vicariously. In times of continued social distancing, we won’t travel as much, we won’t be dating as much, we might not be eating out at all. So, look for an appetite in shows which give us a visual feast of beautiful locations, beautiful dishes and beautiful people.

Meanwhile, lockdown will have made us more aware of the things we took for granted or which were already fragile & vulnerable and then came under yet even more strain. We’ll want content that helps us make sense of this, but also find a new way forward in areas like the need for physical health and mental wellbeing, the value of close friends and family, and the meaning of community and society.

And finally, there are the more ethereal shifts in our belief systems and attitudes : we are likely to come out of this ‘all in it together’ experience with a greater sense of Britishness and national unity (arguably potentially a little too introspective, and at the detriment of a global perspective); our human fragility and relative impotence in the face of a natural phenomenon like a virus may make many of us turn more to religion and spirituality; and, as with surviving any trauma, we are all likely to have an increased appreciation for any small and simple tastes of beauty, hope and joy.

8. We will want to celebrate ordinary heroes.

When this is over, it won’t have been the politicians, the bankers or the actors & comedians who will have saved us. It will be the medics, carers, delivery drivers, supermarket workers, emergency services and charity volunteers living in our communities and down our streets, who will have got us through. Their efforts and sacrifices will put everyone else’s contribution to society – before, during and after coronavirus - into perspective. This crisis has the potential to genuinely turn celebrity culture on its head, and redefine who we value, and why. And therefore whose stories we want to hear and whose faces we want on our screens. Yes, we will always want to be entertained by professionals, but we will also want to be inspired by ordinary heroes. And fame-seeking reality stars may find themselves a little pushed out.

9. Tone will matter more than ever.

The amazing Captain Tom has struck such a cord not just for what he has done, but for the way in which he has done it – dignified, resolute, calmly optimistic, and deeply wise. Entirely uncynical and void of all sensationalism, he is a breath of fresh air. So, in a world of Captain Tom, in a world of clapping for carers, unprecedented collaboration across industry, public service and communities, and the renewed appreciation of impartial public service journalism, tone is everything. Get it right and you are the Queen cancelling her royal gun salute, respected and thanked for her sense of perspective, measured response and sensitivity. Get it wrong, and you are Ben Fogle asking us all to sing happy birthday to Her Majesty – lambasted and alone.

10. It will largely be business as usual.

In many ways, it will be soon be business as usual for content producers and commissioners. After all, none of us want to give covid-19 more attention or credit than it deserves. Whilst our circumstances have radically changed in the last couple of months, our human nature remains pretty consistent. We are still curious beings, we still long to be entertained and lifted out of day-to-day lives, and we still yearn to connect with others. In a talk I give on how to tell stories that matter, I say that we need stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. And I’d argue that we need that more than ever. It’s incumbent on the broadcast industry and others to tell powerful stories in compelling ways which both shine a light on our lives and help us to escape them for a while. Content is fantastic at doing that, and it always has been.

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