The COVID Bounce: How COVID-19 is Reshaping Entertainment Demand

The economic disruption and social dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is not evenly distributed. Some business face catastrophe, while others thrive. Across the entertainment industries the same is true, ranging from a temporary collapse of the live business through to a surge in gaming activity. As we explain in our free-to-download COVID-19 Impact report, the extra time people have as a result of self-isolation has boosted some forms of entertainment more than others – with games, video and news the biggest winners so far.

midia research - the covid bounceTo further illustrate these trends, MIDiA compiled selected Google search term data across the main entertainment categories. The chart below maps the change in popularity of these search terms between the start of January 2020 up to March 27th. Google Trends data does not show the absolute number of searches but instead an index of popularity. These are the key findings:

  • Video streaming: All leading video subscription services saw a strong COVID-19-driven spike, especially Disney+ which managed to coincide its UK launch with the first day of national home schooling.
  • Music streaming: Little more than a modest uptick for the leading music services, following a long steady fall – reflecting a mature market sector unlike video, which has been catalysed by major new service launches.
  • Video demand: With the mid- to long-term prospect of a lot more time on their hands, consumers have been strongly increasing searches for TV shows, movies and games to watch and play. The fact that ‘shows for kids to watch’ is following a later but steeper curve reflects the growing realisation by locked-down families that they have to stop the kids going stir crazy while they try to work from home.
  • Music demand: Demand for music has been much more mixed, including a pronounced downturn in streams in Italy. Part of the reason is that music is something people can already do at any time in any place. So, the initial instinct of consumers was to fill their newfound time with entertainment they couldn’t otherwise do at work/school. As the abnormal normalises music streaming will pick up, as the recent increase in searches for music and playlist terms suggests. Podcasts, however, look like they will take longer to get a COVID bounce.
  • Games: Games activity and revenues have already benefited strongly from the new behaviour patterns, as illustrated by the fast and strong increase in search terms. However, the recent slowdown in search growth suggests that the increase in gaming demand may slow.
  • News: The increased searches correlate strongly with the growth of the pandemic, but the clear dip at the end provides the first evidence of crisis-fatigue.
  • Sports: The closure of all major sports leagues and events has left a gaping hole in TV schedules and the lives of sports fans. The sudden drop in search terms shows that sports fans have quickly filled their lives with other entertainment and have little interest in keeping up with news of sports closures.
  • Leaders: Finally, Boris Johnson has seen his search popularity grow steadily with the pandemic, while Donald Trump’s has dipped.

How Technology Is Radically Reshaping Politics

This is a bit of a departure for this blog: a post on how technology is reshaping politics….

As I write this, the UK is in the midst of a potential constitutional crisis following the UK government’s proposed changes to political norms in order to push through Brexit. In some ways this is what you get when a country only has a part-written constitution and never quite got round to phasing out archaic tools such as proroguing parliament (a monarchical prerogative that was used by medieval Plantagenet kings such as Edward I and Edward II in the 13thand 14thcenturies). However, the implications of this are directly related to the current political situation in the US, Italy and other countries, and the cause of it is far, far more modern. In fact, technology is fundamentally reshaping politics, in ways that will transform how political parties operate and how the electorate itself engages.

The weakening of broad-church political parties

Participative national politics in the West broadly manifest as either two main parties or a collection of smaller parties competing for an electoral majority. In the US and the UK, it has traditionally been the former model of two big parties. Given the broad spectrum of political views and interests in any country, this has resulted in the big national parties becoming broad churches of diverse constituencies of interest. This model, while cumbersome, functioned reasonably well in the analogue era, when communication to the electorate happened through a finite number of linear media outlets across broadcast TV, radio and newspapers. In the age of on-demand and filter bubbles, however, the model is bursting at the seams. The connected electorate no longer needs to dilute its views or have its world view shaped by media outlets that nearlymatch its beliefs, but can instead immerse itself in media, content and discourse that are anexactmatch for its beliefs and principles.

Politics in the era of the filter bubble and the rise of super-niche politics

The combined effect of the decentralisation of media and the hyper-personalisation of social media is to provide audiences with a view of the world that is both unique to them, and often not subject to traditional standards such as objective editorial and fact checking. Just as Netflix or Spotify are enabling music and video super-niches to thrive in ways that traditional media could not, digital and social media are nurturing the rise of super-niche politics. Crucially though, audiences are most often not even fully aware that their personalised view of the world is unique to them, or that a myriad of algorithms are working furiously behind the scenes to determine what they see and hear. This was a dystopian view of the future put forward in Eli Pariser’s 2011 Ted Talk that has come to pass.

The voter as a consumer

In this post-mainstream and post-truth world of alternative facts, political discourse can no longer be dumbed down to broad-strokes politics where patchworks of compromises bind together loose federations of highly disparate views. For better or for worse, the electorate no longer has to compromise its beliefs and politicians are realising that votes are at risk if they do not cater to their electorate’s needs. Technology is transforming the relationship between politician and electorate into one that more closely resembles that of service and consumer. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Italy where the new Five Star party – which was largely formed online – just asked its 100,000 online members whether it should form a coalition government with the centre-left Democratic Party.

Opposition is fundamentally reactive

Over time, traditional broad-church political parties will find it impossible to sell compromised, lowest common denominator policies to the electorate. Instead, data-savvy politicians across the political spectrum are zeroing in on issues that matter to specific interest groups with highly targeted policies. Often these policies – e.g. building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants – polarise the electorate and split political parties down the middle. However, while the interest groups may be unified around their support for the issue, opposition is often fragmented across a wide political spectrum.

All that needs to happen is for targeted advertising to motivate slightly more of an interest group to vote than a disparate remainder to vote otherwise. The beauty of targeting political niches is that you mobilise a group of likeminded people around a passion point, while the resulting opposition is normally a loose coalition of otherwise disparate people and interests. More importantly, the former is active (‘build the wall’, ‘leave Europe’, ‘cut immigration’) while the latter is inherently reactive: it is defined by being opposed to an idea rather than by being an idea.

The fragmentation of political representation

This process is already tearing traditional political parties apart. In the UK, Boris Johnson’s pursuit of the hard-Brexit voter niche has just pushed 21 Conservative MPs out of the party (including the Father of the House of Commons and Winston Churchill’s grandson). Either at this election or the next, the Conservative party may well split in two. The main opposition party, Labour, is in a similar position with the hard left and the reformist middle fighting for ownership of the party. In the US, the rise of the so called ‘Squad’ of progressive Democrats alongside left-leaning senators like Bernie Sanders looks a million miles away from presidential candidate frontrunner Joe Biden.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump was able to mobilise the political infrastructure of the GOP behind him because the Republicans were terrified of having him on the outside rather than the inside, despite his views being radically different from those of many sections of the party. In some ways, politics has always been thus, horse-trading principles for influence and support. What has changed is that the voter-as-consumer electorate will no longer stand for compromise.

The dark side of post-truth

Politicians serving the electorate’s needs in a targeted fashion should be a good thing. Unfortunately, it is not proving to be a wholly positive force thus far, because:

1.     Targeting just enough voters with polarising policies results in a tyranny of the majority, where often less than half the electorate (due to voter turnout) elects the ruling party or candidate and some or all of the remainder feels unrepresented.

2.     Media fragmentation can often provide the electorate with a biased, inaccurate view of the world that feels like ‘truth’ to its target audience.

Back in May we published a report called “Truth and Trust in the Era of Fake News” in which we explored the second point in detail. This quote from it feels more pertinent this week than ever:

Now that a vanguard of non-traditional news providers has declared war on the traditional establishment, they have persuaded their audiences to question whether objectivity is simply code for liberal bias. It almost does not matter whether there is any credence in the critique. Instead, what matters is how audience perceptions are transformed. Whatever the political leaning of a news provider may be, and indeed whatever the operational structure, truth is now the product. The imperative is to convey to their audiences that they are the guardians of their truth, which in turn is implicitly the truth. No amount of fact checking from Facebook will change the new reality that no one has an exclusive on the truth anymore. Truth is now in the eye of the beholder. 

Perhaps the most profound question of all though, is whether democracy, a concept created before print media existed, is well-enough geared to survive the misuse and manipulation of the social media age?

Here’s Why Apple Just Killed Off iTunes

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, U.S. June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mason Trinca

Apple has announced that it is closing iTunes and replacing it with three new apps:Apple Music, Apple Podcasts and Apple TV Apps. While this doesn’t (yet) mean the end of the iTunes Storeit is a major development for Apple. In fact, in many ways, it reflects the way in which Apple is becoming ever more later a follower. The great unbundling process has been going on across digital services for years, with Apple the tech major to cling closest and longest to a unified app experience. Now, just as Facebook, Google and Amazon have a suite of specialist apps, so does Apple. Unbundling is a natural part of the digital cycle, giving users the ability have dedicated user experiences that serve specific needs well rather than many (at best) no so well, (at worst) poorly. Indeed Apple’s Craig Federighi’s tongue-in-cheek quip”One thing we hear over and over: Can iTunes do even more?” hints at just how bloated and no longer fit for purpose iTunes had become.

iTunes never did really shake off its origins

iTunes actually started off as a tool for ripping and burning CDs. In fact, its original marketing slogan was ‘Rip Mix Burn’. It evolved into a tool for managing and playing music and supporting the iPod. Over time it layered in videos, books, apps, Apple Music etc etc. But one thing iTunes never excelled on, even before it suffered from feature bloat, was being a great music player. It was if it could never quite shake off its origins. Apple Music has of course picked up the player baton and run with it for Apple. Now that iTunes has splintered into three apps, we should start to see the evolution of three distinct sets of user experiences. Apple hasn’t pushed the boat out yet because it has a fundamentally conservative user base that has to have change implemented at a steady rate in order not to alienate it.

Unbundling and beyond

With hardware sales are unlikely to drive strong growth again for Apple until it finds its next big device hit, and although Watch and TV could still both rise to the challenge, it is more likely to be a new form factor. Until then, Apple needs its content and services business to pick up the slack. Right now, the App Store generates the lion’s share of Apple’s content and services revenue and there is clearly an imperative for Apple to ensure that it is driving more revenue from its own products rather than simply extracting a tenancy fee from those of others’. With its new suite of subscription services (Apple Arcade, TV+, News+) Apple is now poised to go deep across a wide range of content offerings. Unbundling its apps and subscriptions gives it the agility to build sector specific user experiences and marketing campaigns. Separating out podcasts is particularly interesting, as Apple is making the call that they do not belong with music. A stark contrast to Spotify’s approach. Indeed, Spotify may just be approaching its own iTunes moment, with an app that is trying to do too many things for too many different use cases. iTunes just committedhara-kirito enable Apple to compete better in the digital content marketplace. Spotify may need to do something similar soon.

Extra little thought: does Apple Music the subscription service now become Apple Music+ in order to differentiate itself from the Apple Music app?