By Rick McGinnis
The end of lockdown is in sight, or so they tell us. There is, of course, the little matter of vaccinating the majority of the population – easier in some countries than others, apparently. Then there are ongoing debates about just what privilege immunity confers – the speed with which we’ll be allowed to reopen, the persistence of quarantine after traveling, the existence of “vaccine passports,” and whether masks will be a permanent feature of life. But there’s a sense that a dam is breaking, and a growing hint of economic catastrophe that will no longer be deferred, and so we’re being tantalized with the chance to imagine returning to life “as normal.”
But whatever normal might be, I doubt anyone imagines that we’ll suddenly pick up the thread that we dropped in the first week of March a year ago.
Attempts to predict how much covid would change the world began within weeks of the first stay-at-home orders, with frequent hopeful fantasies about people eschewing materialism, reclaiming work-life balance, reconnecting with their family or with their faith – basically whatever best-case scenario the writer needed to imagine.
A year later most of the fantasies have eroded away, and what we wanted has transformed under months of intermittent lockdowns to what we’ll settle for, as long as we don’t have to go through 2020 again.
Given that nobody could have predicted the past year, it’s just as much a mug’s game to play oracle with the next two or three. But I’m going to rise to the occasion and try to imagine what will happen outside of politics and the economy, mostly because any vision I have there going forward only fills me with varying degrees of chest-tightening anxiety.
The first casualty of the virus in the sporting world was March Madness – the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, which was canceled for the first time since it began in 1939, at a loss of millions of dollars in broadcast fees and betting dollars, not to mention the immediate career prospects of the players. Across the Atlantic, Wimbledon was also canceled.
But the sports world recovered quickly, with most seasons being postponed and then rescheduled, while the NFL, with months to prepare, began regular season play as planned in September. But when they came back – often with reduced game schedules and leagues revamped to group teams in geographic regions – the stands were empty. At first, NBA games played to silent arenas, with just the sound of sneakers on floorboards and game chatter. After a while, though, leagues filled empty seats with banners and cardboard cut-outs of fans, and piped in crowd noise.
Talking to host Dan Senor for his Post Corona podcast, movie critic and columnist John Podhoretz recalled that his enthusiasm for baseball never recovered from the 1994 strike. “That was it for me – I never really came back. I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would.” Statistics show that this was generally true, but that attendance numbers recovered quickly, reaching a new peak in the late 2000s that has since gone into a steady decline, mostly made up for in broadcast revenue.
Part of the problem is that new fans aren’t being minted by years of little league or other team sports as kids; with the rise of a health and safety culture, only the parents of really committed, talented players are willing to overlook the risk and take on the expense of supporting a young player up until high school, and college sports programs recruit the contenders. This has seen the phenomenal rise of e-sports, and it’s a no-brainer that a year (or more) of demanding that kids spend more time in front of their computers will probably accelerate that trend.
Another guest on Senor’s Post Corona podcast was Billy Beane, vice present and minority owner of the Oakland A’s who was played by none other than Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball. They talked about the social aspect of being a sports fan, which meant not just attending games but having a house full of friends to watch them on TV – both impossible (or discouraged) since March of 2020.
As with everything else we lost last year, it remains to be seen whether pent-up demand will fill bleachers again. But Beane did say that reduced game schedules and sharply reduced travel between games meant that players were in better shape during the last year, improving game play and probably extending careers. He wondered if owners and league officials should consider fewer games and geographically clustered leagues when regular life returns, with the added bonus that fans will find it easier to travel to regular season away games, much the way English and European soccer fans can support their teams. Probably a good idea, but one that will have to overcome greed and habit. I’m not optimistic.
Screen time has increased under lockdown, for both kids and adults. One of the winners of 2020 was Netflix, which rose to the challenge of a captive audience by drawing on its global network of producers and filling its streaming menu with new shows, surging to a net income of over $2.76 billion, adding over 36.5 million new subscribers during the year.
But broadcast television didn’t get the bump that you’d think lockdown would have gifted them. Viewership on news programs and cable news channels did surge during the first uncertain weeks of lockdowns, but quickly declined again when viewer fatigue and enervation set in. The U.S. election meant another surge, but when the long twilight of the Trump presidency ended, viewership on CNN collapsed by 50 per cent.
The key to getting and keeping viewers, even (or especially) when they’re locked in their homes, is providing fresh content. YouTube, which adds hours of new content every minute at little to no cost, was the only streaming service that could hope to challenge Netflix for viewers watching video content on TV among the crucial 18-34 demographic in 2020. HBO, the gold standard of quality streaming services, doesn’t even come remotely close, especially in a year when it lacks a major series drawing viewers like Game of Thrones or The Sopranos.
American broadcast networks are finding it harder to compete with streaming services. Some have launched streaming services of their own, but as long as they still bet on flagging genres like police procedurals (the western of early 21st century television), they’ll continue to lose viewers. It goes without saying that Canadian networks, lacking the deep pockets necessary to compete in programming, are at the far end of the pack in this race for viewership.
The biggest loser, inevitably, is the CBC – the worst public broadcaster anywhere around the world considering its public money budget per capita. The launch of Gem, its streaming platform, is a hopeful sign, albeit one that came very late in the game. If its mandate of providing Canadian stories and viewpoints was going to find an audience, it should have done so in 2020, when most of the country was sheltering in place – especially in Ontario, where much of that audience lives.
Today, even when we’re hiding in our homes, technology allows us a global window that we’ve never had before, and that will undercut the tepid nationalism inherent in the CBC’s mission statement. The pandemic has been global, and this window has allowed us to compare our own response to the rest of the world – to baleful effect, when it finally came to vaccine rollout. And so one of the victims of the virus might be the remnant of Canadian cultural nationalism – much of which, after all, was built on the foundation of an unearned sense of superiority.
2020 probably killed the tent pole movie release – the big budget major studio picture that opened in thousands of theatres and made headline news with its weekend box office numbers. The blockbuster franchise probably won’t go away for a long time – expect more Marvel movies for at least another decade – but the physical venues where they made their debuts are probably going away.
Say goodbye to the movie theatre, with its sticky floors, broken seats, and strange odours.
One major film was released into theatres in the last year – Tenet – and that was mostly because director Christopher Nolan had the power to demand his film be seen on big screens. But even if audiences weren’t conditioned to be frightened by proximity to other human beings in enclosed spaces – the effects of which will take months if not years to overcome – the socially distanced conditions and hygiene regulations under which theatres were permitted to open meant that making money was impossible for theatre owners.
When releases weren’t postponed for up to a whole year (Top Gun 2, Dune, Steve Spielberg’s West Side Story remake, the next James Bond film) they were released on free or premium streaming. At least one major studio owner – AT&T, which bought Time Warner in 2018 – has effectively given up on theatrical releases in favour of streaming moving forward, and Disney, effectively the biggest movie studio ever, has its own streaming channel for anything that Marvel, Pixar, Fox, or Lucasfilm choose to make.
Will old habits return?
In a post on his Marginal Revolution blog, economist Tyler Cowen noted the fall in sports viewership during the pandemic and reflected that the loss of the social aspect might be to blame. “Sports are very social. People love talking about sports with their peers and without interacting with as many people, people have fewer opportunities to talk about sports with others. This has the effect of making fans feel less engaged and more casual fans less likely to start watching, creating a cascading effect on engagement.”
We used to talk about “water cooler conversations,” back when the average office could dispense free water and coffee in conditions now considered plague vectors. Sports and movies were one of the subjects of those conversations, but now that isolation has replaced congregation – office space is another victim of the pandemic, and working from home probably isn’t going away – these casual social bonds to each other and to our shared fandoms are going to erode or change.
Netflix actually owns a couple of movie theatres, which it used to screen Martin Scorsese’s film The Irishman when it was released in 2019. It’s the kind of thing a company with deep pockets can do for marquee name content-providers with a sentimental attachment to movie-going as a communal experience. Other studios might follow suit, investing in unprofitable but deluxe theatrical venues, probably with up front ticket prices reflecting this boutique experience.
The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix miniseries released to critical acclaim and audience buzz during the lockdown, has taken the place of those middle market quality pictures that were mourned when the blockbuster overwhelmed the movie industry. Streaming’s bottomless appetite for content has brought them back, which will go a long way toward assuaging the pangs of loss we’ll hear from critics and cinephiles.
We’re going to discover that we’ve lost the habit of a lot of things during lockdown; churches are justifiably concerned that Sunday attendance might never recover from the pandemic. Maybe we will gradually rediscover the peculiar joys of congregation, but new habits, created in isolation and enabled by technology that didn’t exist before, have probably been formed. We will emerge at some point in the next year into the sunlight of a new world, but let’s not fool ourselves by calling it a brave one.