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Peter Bart: Viewers Liberated From Their Home Screens Post-Lockdown, But What To Watch Next?

As a small boy I remember the media cloud that suddenly descended on our household. My father was outraged: Everyone we knew was installing their new TVs and abandoning their radios. Jackie Gleason on the Dumont Network was instantly compulsory viewing. Gleason? Dumont?

His outrage today is likely being replayed amid the post-pandemic confusion. The mass audience that has been glued to their screens for the past 18 months now is getting unglued — in more ways than one. Media tastes seem to be changing so radically that some analysts sense an “attention recession,” with many viewers cutting their cords to pop culture in general.

Media gurus once argued that our unity of taste represented a unifying force in our democracy. I Love Lucy and Ed Sullivan weren’t great television, but they provided water-cooler conversation.

The data today points to a more complex landscape. Cable viewing, which reversed course to rise during the lockdown, slid 23% in the second quarter of 2021. Yet Netflix also reflected slower user growth. Global box office for movies shrunk by 80% last year, and Hollywood will release 40% fewer movies in 2021.

Receipts are further being cannibalized by streaming as audiences recalibrate in dealing with new window strategies. Movies like Black Widow got clobbered in theaters after a single weekend given their availability on the home screen (a 67% falloff for the Marvel-Disney film), not to mention piracy.

Podcasts are gaining, to be sure; even reading books is reclaiming its niche, with audiobooks building special loyalty. To be sure, people devoted an additional 40 minutes a week to social networks, but even Facebook reported a softening as people rejoin the outside world.

Talk with random millennials about their pop culture habits and you run into more confusion than enthusiasm, which is reflected in the declining growth rates of subscriber signups. Netflix added only 1.5 million paying members in the second quarter versus 10.1 million in the same period a year ago (HBO and HBO Max added 2.8 million). The average number of screening services used by consumers is actually falling for the first time (it’s still around 7.06, which analysts predict will tumble).

Over the past two weeks I’ve tried to engage a range of consumers to analyze their changing media habits. The upshot: I’ve encountered a continuum of discontent – signs of that dreaded “attention recession,” perhaps.

“My friends still talk habitually about their TV viewing, but they admit they’re watching fewer shows,” reports one physician. “It’s become steadily more difficult to decipher which shows to watch.”

“I used to love inviting guests to see movies in my screening room but there are no movies that people want to watch,” confides a top studio executive. “My screen stays blank.”

“Bingeing is a lonely act; besides, viewers laugh five times more often when they’re with others rather than alone,” comments Adam Grant, a psychologist who’s studied these patterns.

The data also reminds us that the most loyal entertainment consumers continue to be teens. Peter Shelton, age 16 (and a grandson), looks forward to The Suicide Squad and the next Kingsman sequel, while faithfully exploring trailers on YouTube for prospects. He wishes there were more shows like Stranger Things that provided grist for wider conversation.

But he, like many his age, is most intrigued by gaming. One study reports that consumers installed 56.2 billion gaming apps last year, three times the rate of the previous year. They also spent an extra hour per week on gaming, the largest percentage increase of any media category.

Overall, Generation Z (under 25s) ranked television and movies last on their list of entertainment options, favoring video games and web browsing, according to The Economist.

Taken together, all this further reminds us of the fragmentation of entertainment’s role as a unifying force. My father may have been dismayed by the sudden popularity of Jackie Gleason (which ultimately moved from a dying Dumont to CBS), but he relished the amusing conversations that popular TV shows encouraged—shows like I Love Lucy or All in the Family or Ed Sullivan.

To a degree, everyone was on the same wavelength, quarrelsome though it may have been. They even shared a good laugh, alone or together.

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