January 14, 2021

Thoughts on 2021

By TDG Senior Analyst Lucille Palmiere

In trying to wrap our heads around an imagining of what some predictions for 2021 would be, it is difficult to extricate predictions from reaction to, and what will be recovery from, the pandemic. The ongoing situation has already affected the way we gather, use social media, decision- making processes, and how we function in all areas of everyday life. These evolutions bring with them potential for noteworthy cultural changes.

Moviegoing, once the ultimate activity to do “together” (whether in pairs or groups) is poised to experience a telling paradigm shift. Theater shutdowns, accompanied by the uptick in the use of subscription streaming services, rendered a once communal experience a more personal activity. This will have lingering effects far beyond shutdown, and significantly alter attitudes and behaviors around movie viewing.

Studies exploring the impact of COVID-19, including those by SE-ASI, continue to find that consumers are in no hurry to return to theaters, especially older adults. While safety measures are an important consideration in decisions about whether or not to return to a theater setting, it is what is being shown that will govern the pace at which moviegoers return.

To mitigate newly-entrenched habits of individuation—with viewers directing how and when they opt in to a TV show or movie—and to get traffic flowing back into theaters, studios and exhibitors must think outside the box. Specialty movies that can be marketed as events, or films that can be perceived as truly offering something new and worthy of a big-screen experience will be key starting points.

Communal activities as a whole take a new form. Research also finds that what individuals most desire is reforging connections with family and friends. When this will occur and what it may will look like is dependent, of course, on ongoing pandemic parameters and methods of socialization.

A recent article in The Atlantic presents the case that 2020 “shattered America’s shared reality.” The author references Robert Putnam’s work on American’s declining social engagement and resultant social unraveling as he explores his own ideas of community. A key contention is that the closing of physical spaces (e.g., restaurants, gyms, theaters) in turn closed off physical community (i.e., ways in which individuals gather for camaraderie and shared experiences).

From my perspective, there is no doubt some of this decline and closing-off will be overcome by the fundamental need to reach out beyond ourselves—an imperative undeniably exacerbated by the pandemic. How the public has responded to TikTok, celebrity postings, and the like reinforces one central point—that is, how important reactions to what is said and done by others are to a sense of community and as a way of seeking relatability. Under the cloud of remaining restrictions, for now a return to gathering is set to remain largely virtual.

Growing boredom with Zoom and similar video conferencing apps will cause individuals to explore other avenues as a means of achieving the common ground necessary for a sense of relating to the outside world. One company to take this on is Sling, whose Watch Party (whereby families and friends can watch online shows together) fosters some semblance of community. Other services—and perhaps even news outlets via increased use of open and interactive forums and panel discussions— should embrace this notion of social connectivity; of watching “live AND together.”

“Escapism” will continue to be the watchword in media consumption. The fatigue of constant conflict and strife all but guarantees pushback. Exemplifying this, It’s A Wonderful Life was the most-watched show on Christmas Eve, drawing 4.47 million viewers; second was the feel-good The Greatest Showman. Further, this season’s movies on the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime place them among the most-watched cable networks.

Alex Jung, a senior writer at New York Magazine, noted in “Quarantine Brain” that because of the pandemic we are seeking sources of “familiar comfort,” perhaps in search of the world we want to get back to. With respect to TV, Jung hit home with “nobody wants to watch a show to process our daily horrors.” On a personal note, I find myself tuning out shows such as Grey’s Anatomy that hit hard on death, illness, and catastrophe in their pandemic-focused storylines. Additionally, conversations with others have yielded a more sparing approach to news viewing. At least for a time, it can be expected that books, TV programs, and movies that offer relief from the stress of daily reality will play a larger role in media choices.

Tribalism will become more entrenched before it lessens, both politically and culturally, and despite ongoing desires for renewed connectivity and engagement with the outside world. In The Soul of America, Jon Meacham writes that one way of overcoming the divisiveness and conflict in today’s society is to resist tribalism and be open to listening to and trying to understand conflicting viewpoints. No doubt his message was not heard by the insurrectionists that stormed the Capitol.

Conspiracy theories and perpetual falsehoods masquerading as truths can be contagious, as well as being narratives that find their place among those so inclined. How can we be expected to have a reasonable discussion if the opposing views are nonsensical and so outside of science and reality that there is no common ground? Indeed, social media has played a part in making tribalism a norm and in making it more difficult to subvert these tendencies (or at least to better keep them under wraps). Social media can inflame people’s worst impulses, depending on what they choose to embrace and follow.

Advertising and marketing pivot to find new messaging amid uncertainty and turmoil. Just as small businesses turn to find new uses for old items or to re-invent their product, the challenge for the media world is to rethink how to engage the consumer. Hard-sell or nice-to-have implications can find a stumbling block in economic hardship. Rather, the goal should be to help consumers see personal and social benefits in their purchasing decisions. In line with this, luxury fashion brands are changing their impetus to produce sustainable clothing, with some recycling fabrics such as cashmere in order to support and promote initiatives for climate change. This trend will continue and make inroads in other industries.

Final Thoughts
As discussed, the changes we face will be far-reaching, cutting across media, social interactions, and our very thought processes. One can ask if the “old” order we once knew will ever resurface. From the shifts already taking place, the more likely scenario is a consumer pool that engages with the world in a new way. How individuals will re-brand, re-connect, and re-define the socio-cultural fabric is a fascinating enterprise TDG will continue to explore.

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