2020 was the year where staying at home to watch TV was encouraged, and many of us found ourselves engaging with digital media more than ever before. Some TV productions recognised and built upon the desires of many to banish boredom and get involved with novel activities at home.
Lockdown Television Trends
In 2020 many of us have watched more television and digital content than usual. Ofcom found that during periods of lockdown in the U.K the average adult spent around 6 hours and 25 minutes per day watching television or online video content. This equates to about 45 hours per week - almost a third more than in 2019. With nowhere to be and with less 'new' content being able to be produced, certain aspects of digital media captured people's attention in a way that was shared both on and offline.
Many people will recall the Tiger King phenomenon from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 which sparked numerous online campaigns, discussions and social media parodies. The Netflix docu-series is still commented on as being a signifier of the initial weeks of Covid-19 restrictions. This, it seemed, was a television moment that captured collective attention and engagement.
Cultivating Audience Engagement under Covid-19 Restrictions
As lockdown continued, filming of planned programming was halted. Creators had to get creative with their production of new content. For one reason or another Channel Four's pandemic productions stood out to me as good examples of actively engaging at-home audiences, encouraging them to take part in activities that would provide a sense of shared input. I continue with a few examples to illustrate my point.
Firstly, Taskmaster, which Channel Four acquired from TV Channel DAVE in November 2019. Taskmaster is a show where comedians are set a selection of outlandish tasks to be judged by actor and comedian Greg Davies, the titular Taskmaster. While the filming of series 10 (the first to be aired on Channel Four) began in early 2020, Covid delayed much of this and consequently its release until autumn. The show's creator and presenter Alex Horne decided that in lieu of airing the series as scheduled, he would call on the audience in lockdown to take part in their own set of weekly challenges. Once these were filmed and sent in by the audience, they were judged and a selection were showcased on the Taskmaster Youtube Channel.
The invitation to take part in a set of tasks probably provided some much welcomed distraction from world events for those who had a go. Key is that there was a sense of competition or shared challenge involved in taking part. The goal was to get showcased. However, even if not chosen to be showcased by the Taskmaster, seeing the winners provides a sense of being a part of a shared experience.
The Great British Bake Off has been an annual U.K Television staple for a decade. While other reality shows embraced the drama of cut throat judging (I'm looking at you Simon Cowell) The Great British Bake Off is enjoyed for it's calmer, kinder and more positive tone. The stakes are low with the prize being a cake stand and contestants always seem to become friendly rather than viciously competitive.
When it returned to our screens in September 2020, with contestants 'bubbling' together for the duration of their time on the show, it felt simultaneously strange and yet hopeful to see people be within two metres of one another again. However, it was the partner show An Extra Slice which directly addressed the audience at home. By building on the events of the main show it provided a 'collective debrief' of sorts while audience members were encouraged to 'give it a go' at home and send in photos of their creations - no matter how disastrous! Co-hosts Jo Brand and Tom Allen struck a balance between acknowledging the Covid rules and regulations while providing much needed comic relief.
I was incredibly excited in early 2020 when one of my favourite artists Grayson Perry announced that they would be hosting a show during lockdown that would encourage creativity and creation. He filmed his six part series Grayson's Art Club, from his studio in Islington, North London. The crux of the show was a national call to action to find time during lockdown to reflect our experiences through art.
Every aspect of the show felt accessible and inclusive. From the name (Grayson's Art Club) which felt informal and friendly, to the time and value he gave the artworks that were submitted. The weekly themes provided a loose focus for people to engage with each week. This, combined with his Zoom calls with various audience members, meant that while you watched and drew, painted, crocheted, sculpted etc., you felt weren't the only one sharing the experience. During a lockdown, that feeling is precious.
In Autumn 2020 Grayson produced a follow up episode which saw him collecting and curating some of the submissions from viewers into a show at the Manchester Art Gallery. Unfortunately, a subsequent national lockdown put the brakes on the opening of the exhibition. When the exhibition does finally get it's opening day, it will provide a collaborative record of how people spent their time at home in 2020 and the events or people that influenced their artwork.
Looking Forward - TV in 2021
2020 was a year in which many of us consumed more digital media than ever before. Television has the power to provide escapism and company. However, in periods of isolation it also has the potential to provide connection and shared participation with those in the outside world. Beyond joining the discussion on social media, shows like Taskmaster, Grayson's Art Club and The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice provided inspiration for tangible activity and engagement with the shows and the rest of the audience who were also watching at home.
2021 has already brought a further lockdown and so perhaps another year of heavy digital media use is already underway. Grayson Perry's Art Club is returning for a second series in February with a fresh selection of themes and topics to get the nation creating. Perhaps we will see further shows which encourage people of all ages to engage in new activities and hobbies to keep our spirits up as we spend (yet again) more time at home.