It is not doomsday for media & entertainment, only a reset of existing norms: Amit Khanna

Writer, filmmaker & media guru Amit Khanna spells out how media and entertainment will fare in a post-COVID-19 world

e4m by Amit Khanna
Updated: Apr 15, 2020 9:46 AM
film production

In the past 5000 years, there have been perhaps less than events 50 watershed events which have changed human history and life on the planet. Every mythology has its own definition of such epic events. Arguably in the 20th century, the most cataclysmic changes were triggered by the two World Wars. In retrospect, it is the Great War of 1914-18 (together with the Spanish Flu which was co-terminus with its end) perhaps is the most moment which changed the way we had lived earlier. Let’s not forget there are several modern inventions which came into use around the same time. Wireless and railways (a little earlier), Electricity, Telephone, Penicillin, Insulin, Processed food, Automobiles, Planes, Recorded music, Films, Radio, Television, Home appliances etc. It was also the first time when almost the entire world was impacted by the war in a far-reaching manner. Life changed forever. But, this was only expedited by rapid changing geopolitics, economy and technology, which followed in the next few years until 2nd world war.

 It was during the same time mass media enabled mass entertainment for the first time ever. The spectacular rise of newspapers, radio, films and -- a little later --  TV is virtually how humans continue to amuse themselves. In the last three decades, rapid digitalisation has not only changed media formats but given birth to the Internet, the present-day fountainhead of information and entertainment. A 100 years later, a simple virus, COVID-19  or Coronavirus is about to change much of this. Let me stick my head out and say nothing in our past has altered our lives as much as the present pandemic. Germaine to this article is the way entertainment will emerge in the post Coronavirus world. If the last month, where almost the entire world is under lockdown, is any indication, the change will be much more than what we can even imagine at this stage. Existing occupations, jobs, habits, pastimes in fact from economy to lifestyle will change. It's like looking into space and not blue skies. How does one predict what will happen? 

Media & Entertainment is a $2 trillion industry worldwide and $35 billion in India. Here, it is also one of the largest employers providing jobs to around 5 million people besides offering indirect employment to another 5 million. However more than the financial aspect, while media is the news and information lifeline for the nation, entertainment keeps people engaged for over 5-6 hours a day. Entertainment is the safety valve of an overstressed society. A billion-plus people are hooked on to various devices, from a mobile phone to TV set, watching some programming. Over a crore of people visit a cinema theatre every day. Millions of others listen to the radio, attend live performances or play an online game. Countless folk artistes, classical musicians and dancers, puppeteers, acrobats drama troupes keep us entertained every day. From the beginnings of history, entertainment is one of humans' great obsession. From creativity to commerce it’s an all-embracing activity. 

Or they did till the coronavirus triggered a lockdown. What will happen when this Armageddon is over? How will people live after the 21st century Mahabharata ends? What will be the new normal? What happens to Media and Entrainment and other pastimes?

Let’s look at Cinema. I think visiting cinemas will now be an event rather than a casual outing. India has too few screens, only 9000 for such a large country so they won't shut down. However, new social distancing norms, for example, leaving every alternate seat blank, waring masks may be mandatory, thermal checks, sanitisation and deep cleaning between shows will help in instilling confidence among cinemagoers. Ticket booking and Food & Beverage sales will become online rather than physical sales to avoid crowding. Similarly, show timings will be staggered to avoid large gathering of people in and around the cinemas. Cinemas will be the weekly out of home experience for most Indians.

What about films themselves? India presently makes 2000 films annually, of which less than half are released theatrically. This number is not sustainable. Going forward, not more than 200 to 300 films across languages will release in cinemas. The rest will have to rework their economics and work on a non-theatrical model. Increasingly, the number of films online through streaming services will increase dramatically. However, there is a limit to how much programming can one consume in a day. Some estimates suggest that 6 hours of engagement via multiple screens is the optimum for most people in a day. This engagement includes everything from social media, news, TV, gaming and films. While the pie will keep growing, the slices will become smaller. Talent and others in the value chain across various stakeholders have to rework their numbers.

Coming to television. Linear broadcasting already had an expiry date looming large. In India, it was still a decade away. This equation will change. I am not saying that TV channels will shut down. But, its time the broadcasters concentrate on lesser channels and more on compelling content. Competing programming, for example, talent contests by the dozen cannot survive. The same endless family sagas will disappear with audience fatigue faster. Attention deficit will yield to new social pressures. Most TV programmers in India have failed to innovate and will suffer consequently. Lazy creativity will just not work.

Driven by the false security of TV ratings, advertisers and their media buyers have been recklessly pumping money in mediocre content. In the new post-Corona world, lifestyle choices will drive up eyeballs but monetizing of these eyeballs will share and far more divided. The total number of hours of traditional broadcasting will increase in the immediate term but then, very quickly, the slide will begin.

For news, topicality is what determines viewership.  The loss of credibility of TV news is directly linked to the personal biases of the channel and its anchors. I see the tendency of getting a dozen talking heads (all half-baked experts) night after night as a recipe for disaster in the time to come. With curated news available on the fly, its apps like Google News and Daily hunt which will become the primary source of news.

Viewing habits are already changing among certain segments of the audience. The younger demographic is tuning on TV sets. More people will switch to on-demand viewing much quicker than before in the post-pandemic world. Increased bandwidth is just a matter of a year or so and data prices will continue to be among the cheapest in the world in spite of an increase in data prices at least half the audience will engage with online content most of the time.

Digital entertainment so far in India has been dominated by short-form video and music. In recent months especially since the lockdown, there has been a sharp rise in streaming subscribers as well as time spent on such services. One of the reasons for the slow offtake of streaming video in India has been the wrong content. A minute section of the audience, the early adopters of Netflix, Amazon etc may be hooked on to dark content both foreign and Indian. However, the mainstream audience is still looking for entertainment they are used too.

Of course one can move beyond banal overproduced and gauche soaps, but drama and romantic comedies are what will drive viewership in India. It is a matter of months before bosses at Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, Sony and a handful of Indian platforms like MX Player, Zee 5 and Alt realise this and revamp their programming. Whether they have the financial muscle to scale up is another question. India is too big a market to dump elitist programming.

Even the stand-up comedy shows on a few of these platforms are too tangential for the large family audience in India. Gratuitous violence and profanity doesn’t make the programming appealing or engaging for a vast majority of Indians. A section of younger demographic especially the non-English speaking elite rather watch Savita Bhabhi clones on YouTube on their mobile phones than some of the zombie and dark content on streaming platforms. While online gaming globally is a huge business-over USD 150 billion, in India is relatively small. It will expand exponentially in the years to come. My prediction is it will be a USD 5 billion Industry in 3 to 5 years. Social media is spawning not only junk but more of the same. Ennui is a matter of time. How much of short-form video and trolling are self-destructing themselves to boredom?  

One segment which will suffer a lot is Live entertainment and live sport. For months they may remain an embargo in any event which requires large gatherings in closed spaces. Social distancing, masks, health checks and sanitisation are here to stay. The more worrying thing is that people, by and large, will be reluctant to venture out for live events in the years to come. A weak global economy with substantial job losses and wage cuts will not only lead to the tightening of belts but a change in discretionary spending habits. The silver lining for Event managers is the recent attempts at virtual concerts, performances and events. These may miss the vibe of live events but if excited well they can for a lot of people become a healthy alternative. The recent concerts- Sangeet Setu- organised by the Indian Singers Association (ISA) is one example of how virtual concerts may evolve.

One of the biggest revenue earners entertainment is live sports. From the Olympics to IPL, soccer and basketball almost every sport has both National and International tournaments and matches. In future, these will happen in controlled environments with far fewer spectators. Of course live broadcast and streaming will continue to attract eyeballs, sponsors and advertisers. In course of time stadia and arena with adequate health safeguards may be built to allow audience participation. I am worried about the way our traditional melas and religious fairs will shape up. It is impossible to have social distancing on such occasions at all. Some via media will emerge in due course. Folk artistes must be found in another form of monetisation to survive.

 Some other segments like radio, OOH including billboards and digital displays, will carry on but advertising pressures will be an issue. book fair literary and film festivals. No matter how we wish the fear unleashed by Coronavirus is not going away soon if ever. I believe people will reprioritise their lives. Economic havoc is going to render millions jobless. Most of them do not have the wherewithal or the ability to reskill themselves. Even if they do find alternate employment or occupation they will in all likely earn less than earlier. We have already seen the first pink slips and salary cuts being announced across the media Industry. People will go out less, spend less, make alternative choices which means existing paradigms will change. Will all of them go back to buying newspapers anymore or simply switch to watching and reading news on TCs and smartphones? Will they subscribe to fewer channels. Will they cut down on going out? No one has the answers, but quite likely. 

In India advertising drives Media. I feel the ad spend will rise but its existing distribution will alter drastically. The reallocation will be much swifter than it would have been. Conventional metrics won’t work. For the next few years, the Economy will be under stress. Marketers will have to innovate to sell. The professional elite in Media & Industry too will have to take haircuts. Budges will be redrawn. In films, stars will have to forgo part of their high salaries. Their entourages will have to be pruned. Lavish sets and wasteful extravagance in production of all content will have to lean towards frugal efficiency. The number of award shows, conferences, junkets even holidays will be truncated. Redundancies will leave the Industry badly mauled.

 I am not predicting doomsday only reset of existing norms. Yes in 10 years from now global GDP will be at an all-time high and India will be a 10 trillion economy. The problem will be a lot of us will be on the side-lines nursing lost opportunities. This is the time to unlearn, relearn and reskill. Ideologies, history, dreams will change. We are about to see humanity reset.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com.

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