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How TV held us together during lockdown

Life before lockdown. Remember it? That strange time where we could hug our friends, send our kids to school and go wild in the aisles without following a one-way system.

But whilst the threat of COVID has loomed large and the effects of the disease have reverberated around the globe, one aspect of life has remained reassuringly constant: TV.

We have all lived through history these past few months, and TV has played a crucial role. It has eased our anxiety and kept us informed. But mostly, it has kept us together.

The huge and varied number of emotional roles TV played during the COVID crisis became immediately apparent in ‘Lockdown TV’, a study of TV habits we ran throughout the lockdown period. Here is some of what we learned…

TV’s value to us increased

It was no surprise that TV viewing surged during lockdown. Linear viewing increased by 21% during lockdown (especially to news, which increased 45%) and commercial Broadcaster VOD increased by 45%. After all, many of us had a lot more time on our hands and fewer ways to fill it. Subscription VOD services also saw a significant rise in viewing.

What perhaps was surprising was just how much more valued TV became. Our study revealed that, in many cases, TV became an emotional crutch. Viewing became almost ritualistic.

The Lockdown TV study focused on three distinct groups: workers who were expected to work-from-home, working parents of school aged kids, and those who were unable to work due to COVID. In spite of their differing circumstances, the importance of TV to each of these groups was clear from the off.

Comfort and escape

For home workers, often sharing their space with others in the same boat, TV provided the means to switch off, to relax and escape. It drew a line between home and work as the boundaries between the two became increasingly blurred. We saw householders coming together to eat lunch around the TV or settle into a programme at the end of a working day. It provided the reason to down tools and mentally recuperate.

This sentiment was echoed in the other households too but for different reasons. During the early days of the crisis, national anxiety was at a high. As deaths soared, jobs were lost and clapping our beloved NHS began, many of us were fearful; fearful for our own health, fearful for our loved ones, and fearful about what was happening in the world around us.

As we retreated into our homes, we needed something to ease that anxiety – and that something was often TV. TV has always provided a valued means of escape, comfort and distraction (see our need-states work here), but its impact during lockdown was turbocharged as these needs became more prevalent. For those who found themselves out of work due to the pandemic, the value of TV in this respect could not be over-stated. In short, TV became an emotional crutch for many.

TV’s vital role for parents

This was especially true of working parents. For anyone who’s found themselves thrust into the role of full-time nursery nurse or teacher, especially if juggling work on top, let’s face it, those moments of clarity, peace and sanity can seem few and far between. (As I type this, I hear the dreaded, “Muuuuuuuuum!” echoing down the hall for the umpteenth time today).

For parents, TV not only helped provide relief and distraction, it also fulfilled two other crucial roles.

Firstly, a helping hand with education. We witnessed parents using TV content as a springboard for home ed activities, such as cooking and art. But the broadcasters also stepped up the mark in terms of educational content. As busting moves with Joe Wicks became de rigour each morning on YouTube, afternoons spent with documentaries or BBC Bitesize did the same. (In fact, the latter was used heavily by schools to help maintain the curriculum for pupils during lockdown.)

The second was bonding. The parents within our study talked extensively about protecting their children’s mental health during lockdown, the guilt of trying to parent/teach and often work concurrently, and several mentioned the lack of commonality they felt with their kids – particularly with teens and older children.

TV provided a hugely valued point of shared interest and connection – an excuse to settle down together, snuggle up and forget the world outside. So much so, that several parents made a point of introducing content to their kids that they loved when they were younger, for the specific purpose of providing a shared point of focus and connection.

The renewed importance of sharing

TV has always facilitated togetherness, but its role in lockdown was different. Excess time, being forced into close quarters with household members, and the comfort of hunkering down together meant that shared TV viewing soared by a whopping 30% during lockdown. Households had to find content that suited all members of the house – genres such as comedy, entertainment, and films were pivotal to achieving that (see the stats here).

In fact, across the three months of our study, watching TV with others was cited time and time again as one the most positive aspects of lock-down; the chance to just be together, to share a simple pleasure, to watch and forget the outside world with those that you love. So much so that this increase in shared viewing was something that virtually all of our households said they’d continue when restrictions are finally lifted.

In a time of angst and uncertainty, it’s these precious shared moments that helped make the difference between surviving and thriving.

(All figures cited are according to BARB, see here for details.)

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