Reimagining the Media Landscape After the Pandemic

As with everything to do with the pandemic, there is a pre- and a post-. And so it might be, with the advertising and media landscape, though how much of it is enduring, we still can’t tell.

At the start of the Covid pandemic in, well, … it seems like it’s been with us so long, it’s hard to tell exactly when… in 2020, all of media must have done very well. That’s because everybody had their face in a newspaper or else in front of a TV set or glued to their mobile devices and computers waiting to hear the next big development on the Covid epidemic, how fast it was spreading and what precautions to take, etc.

By the time it was a pandemic – and it didn’t take long to get there – there were the strict lockdowns. Stuck at home, what else was there to do but read more on our computers and mobile devices, as well as watch more television than we ever probably did. And just then, streaming services in India were taking off, so Netflix and Hotstar as well as Amazon Prime must have done really well. From what one heard and read in the news, Netflix was gaining new subscribers at a never-before rate even in the US and across the world, including India. In fact, in India people were talking of a new phenomenon – binge-watching.

Not given to extremes in any sphere of life, I stuck to my usual routine. My daily media diet consisted of the daily newspapers (despite fears that they too might carry the virus!), reading on the internet and then a couple of hours of TV viewing in the evenings which are mainly confined to news, especially business news. And since I have been stuck at home anyway for the past many years, lockdown made no difference to my day-to-day life. The only problem was that The Economist couldn’t be delivered to our home in Goa because of the pandemic, and so they asked us to read the digital edition.

New movie releases and live sports events were badly affected, I suppose, and sports was the quicker to return, first with no spectators, and later with crowd restrictions. The Tokyo Olympics took place at the height of the pandemic and we now have the Beijing Winter Olympics, with all the frosty relations you’d expect at this time of the year, to add to the friction between China and the West. These are big occasions for advertising, though, and I suppose the industry is glad to have them back. Super Bowl in the US has also returned with a bang in 2022, raking in at least US $435 million through in-game advertising spends.   

Now that the pandemic is fading away, we are beginning to slowly feel its more enduring impact. Or at least get a sense of how much the media consumption habits of people are likely to change for the longer term. I am not sure of what the exact numbers reveal, but I would imagine that total newspaper readership (English and vernacular) rose during the pandemic in India. Online readership too, though harder to measure, should have soared, as would have viewing of streamed shows. Print media revenue in India is said to grow in 2022, but will still be below pre-pandemic levels and I suppose it’s because advertising will take a while to return. My hunch is that TV viewership too would have increased during the past couple of years; in India, it registered a growth of 9% during 2020.  

Globally too, I would imagine that viewership of streamed shows would have soared. From what I heard on CNBC, the US saw an explosion in the numbers of new Netflix subscribers at the start of the pandemic and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same in India. Now though, it is a different story. Netflix is reporting a sharp fall in new subscriber additions and perhaps in viewing time as well. At their Q4 2021 earnings report, the stock fell 20% on news of disappointing subscriber additions as well as a weak forecast for the coming quarters. It was evident in India as well, where the company was forced to slash their subscription fees, not just due to the waning pandemic, but because of the launch of Disney+Hotstar at extremely competitive prices.

Streaming wars are just about beginning; Image: Freestocks on Unsplash

Given that many people had to switch to working from home, Zoom conferences would have enjoyed the highest time spent, if they can be considered a medium! Indeed, Zoom’s earnings forecasts too have pulled back and the stock has also corrected quite a bit, after the pandemic has started to wane. One wonders how much activity on other social media networks soared during the pandemic and whether they show any signs of ebbing now. I, for one, have noticed a drop in the number of webinars on LinkedIn, as the pandemic has reduced its virulence and as more people get vaccinated and are probably back in their offices. There were so many that had flooded social media in the early days of the pandemic that people were also talking of webinar fatigue!

Through all the media consumption habits during the pandemic, I think that some that were prevalent before are likely to continue. For example, the appeal of the digital and social media to Gen Z and the younger band of millennials will hardly have faded and is likely to endure. They will continue to binge on new media even after the pandemic is gone and people are back to school, college and work.

The elderly and baby-boomers were always more of television viewers and I think that trend will continue well after the pandemic. Given that they are mostly retired folk in the US and elsewhere, they have all the time to watch TV as well. It’s something television channels and networks have a hard time accepting, but it is necessary to keep those folks in mind both in programming and content as well as advertising revenue. They will also be readers of print media both in its physical and digital forms.

The group I think will be most interesting to observe and also most critical for advertisers are the 40 to 60-year-olds. These people would form the bulk of the biggest earners, the busiest workers, and naturally the bigger spenders. When they return to work and are back at the office, chances are that they are not going to be spending their days streaming videos or watching films. At the same time, they make an exciting group to observe because I think their media consumption would also encompass the widest range – they would be big consumers of news, sports, entertainment shows, films, podcasts, etc.

Besides, I would assume that this consumer cohort would also be most comfortable with all types of media and devices, so advertising wouldn’t have to follow a mobile-first or mobile-only strategy to reach them. It makes for more diverse and interesting multi-media campaigns and offers brands plenty of creative and media possibilities with which to build their brands. And it would be both offline as well as online.

That said, these groupings are more than just about age or demographics. Within each, one is likely to find consumer segments defined more sharply by their income, educational qualifications, job profile, psychographics and interests. These would make for fascinating studies for advertisers, advertising and brand communications companies as well as media organisations. Of course, the fact that the media industry is in such a state of flux doesn’t make such study any easier.

Like I mentioned earlier, media networks too have a hard time accepting that their audience has changed or moved on, and it’s time we come to grips with it. For example, BBC, which is now over 100 years old is grappling with an aged audience and is struggling to attract younger viewers, across its many channels in the UK. I would say that BBC should get back to its core values and articulate a new strategy for the next few decades. It can’t be everything to everyone, but if it hones in on its brand positioning, it can find ways to make itself relevant to different audiences, concentrating most on the core audience, of course. Other audiences can be reached through content specially created for the devices they most consume media on.

On the other hand, streaming has taken off in such a big way across the world during the pandemic that every media company wants to be in on the action. To the extent that Viacom CBS has recently decided to rebrand itself Paramount. For a diversified media conglomerate, with interests in news (CBS), entertainment, science and educational content (Discovery), films (Paramount) and now streaming (Paramount +), I find it strange that the importance of streaming and films influenced the company rebranding decision. Why the need for rebranding in the first place, is not clear to me.

Metaverse is about to take over our lives; Image: Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

Speaking of rebranding, in all the media flux we had Mark Zuckerberg declaring that metaverse is going to be the next big thing in the digital space. Prompting him to rebrand the company, Meta! From what little I have read it appears to be an attempt by a media mogul to take over more and more of our lives. It is not enough that we have to work and shop virtually during the pandemic; even when life goes back to normal, we can have our avatars living virtual lives on the internet!

As media organisations figure out how the media landscape has changed or requires them to revise their strategies, it also time for advertisers to focus on the right audience and brand strategy. Not to simply jump on to the digital bandwagon, because everyone is. With businesses considerably accelerating their digital technology capabilities during the pandemic, especially in terms of shopping experiences, newer forms of digital shopping have emerged.

I have yet to read more about it, but the latest development is social commerce. It is a new way for consumers to shop on social media sites, where their discovery, information-gathering and purchase all happens within the social media site and the advert. Instagram is believed to be the first such social media site offering social commerce and I hear that Facebook too offers it now. The other new buzzword is direct-to-consumer, which seemed just another variation of social commerce to me and the distinction is still not too clear. It got me thinking that several industries have been direct to consumer for a couple of decades at least. Think net-banking and financial services, airlines and hospitality. Does that mean that direct to consumer is best suited for service sector industries? Not necessarily. When more companies set up online sales and start to transact from their own websites directly with consumers, that is the best form of direct to consumer. That’s also when it becomes another distribution channel.

All this only goes to prove what I have been saying all along on my blog: that the digital medium in its current form is a sales funnel and not conducive to brand-building. Also, in India subscription services have not caught on yet and anyway, ours is an extremely price-sensitive market. In TV alone, the explosion of channels makes it hard to justify subscription fees even though PayTV has been around for many years. The current system of bouquets and not a la carte offering of channels makes it even more fraught with problems.

Perhaps all of media needs to become direct to consumer first; DTH itself ought to be based on a la carte pricing and not on packages. Our own experience with Tata Sky (now Tata Play!) is that the packages are never fully aligned with what we watch. Besides, the packages keep changing every few months, and so we decided to subscribe to all of it, and on an annual basis! And with most TV channels now also available across devices as an app, the pricing ought to be a la carte and reasonable.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning that in India, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) regulates what TV channels can charge viewers, which to my mind is completely unnecessary. Except in the case of news channels, where TRAI can regulate under the consideration that news is an essential service, they really ought not to have any role in regulating media tariffs. Besides, they have more important work in the telecom sector which is in a state of disarray thanks to their policies as well as the government’s, and needs urgent attention.

I suppose we will have to watch the media space for much longer to have a clearer picture of what will endure and also what will enable true brand-building. Having said that, I also think that in the days of internet-driven media, things will always continue to be in a state of constant flux. Making it ever harder to measure the effectiveness of advertising spends on digital, even if most of it claims to be measurable. And it will always fall short of the demands of brand-building, unless media/tech companies rethink their advertising model and do so in consultation with the advertising and brand communications industry.

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