Lockdown TV



Back in March 2020, life as we knew it shifted. The things that we took for granted just weeks before, such as travel, eating out, shopping trips – even sending our kids to school and seeing friends and family – temporarily ground to a total halt.

Homes became offices and schools.  The daily commute all but stopped for many.  The word ‘furloughed’ became an integral part of the English language. 

In spite of the devastating effects of the pandemic, there were undoubtedly positives.  People were gifted more time with their household members.  New ways of connecting and sharing experiences were found and many people were able to slow down for the first time in their adult lives.

From a media perspective, the effects of lockdown were profound. The volume of TV viewing jumped significantly during lockdown (21% for all individuals according to BARB) and production of – and demand for – certain genres changed dramatically.

Thinkbox commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a new real-time study following 12 households across the UK as their routines, needs and viewing habits change week by week.  The results were fascinating.


  • Digital ‘deep dives’ into the lives of 12 participants over 10-12 weeks. The participants are split into three key groups:
     ›  Those forced to work from home because of the lockdown
     ›  Parents with school-aged children
     ›  Those now unable to work as a direct result of the virus
  • 2 x 3 day ‘immersion communities’ – one at the beginning of April and one at the end of May.
  • A series of check-ins over the fieldwork period with participants filming video diaries around topical questions.

Main Findings

The importance of TV content

Shared viewing and the comfort of new routines

TV has always played a crucial part in bringing households together and that role was amplified during lockdown. Shared TV viewing rocketed by 30% over lockdown, driven by the need to connect with others and find valuable points of reference during a period when our lives had shrunk.

In addition, for households that previously led quite separate lives, TV brought individuals together and helped them to develop new, shared routines – particularly for those forced to work from home and/or educate kids.  In fact, in our quantitative survey, 54% of UK individuals with children in the household agreed that lockdown had encouraged them to watch more TV with the people they live with. In addition, 39% felt that TV’s importance helping people feel connected to society had grown during lockdown. It seemed that TV provided an appreciated anchor for the lockdown way of life. 

The increased opportunity for bonding time around the TV, was something that our participants thoroughly enjoyed. Many cited this as a habit that would stick once lockdown ended and over a third of the UK agreed that they would continue to watch programmes they have discovered since lockdown began.


Creativity in content

A crucial part of lockdown life was choosing TV content that suited the whole household or family - and we witnessed the importance of this throughout the course of the study.  This was partly driven by necessity as the absence of certain programmes from the schedule, such as sport and soaps, forced people to find new (or indeed old) things to watch. There were many examples of lockdown programming and people taking up new interests with their new-found time such as cookery or art.  In fact, 36% of UK individuals had found shows they wanted to continue watching after lockdown had ended.

Platform Discovery

In addition, with more time to watch, VOD provided the perfect place to explore, catch up and binge. Netflix recently reported a surge in subscribers during lockdown and BVOD viewing increased by 45% year-on-year over the same period.

Lockdown provided an opportunity for viewers to try on-demand services that previously weren’t on their radars – and integrate them into their new TV repertoires. Importantly, it gave viewers the means to binge on boxsets and fill the extra time that lockdown provided with TV that they loved and wanted to revisit, had missed the first time round or had found through exploration or recommendation.  It was no surprise therefore that unmatched viewing tracked by BARB (where the television set was used for viewing something other than viewing to reported channels or on-demand services, but in this case excluding gaming) rose by 32 minutes per day on average during the first five weeks of lockdown.

VOD has undeniably played a more significant role in our TV lives since lockdown – and will inevitably continue to do so moving forwards.

The need for comfort, escape and distraction.

Throughout lockdown, the respondents talked at length about the need to ‘escape from reality’ through light-hearted, comforting TV programming, especially nostalgic comedy such as Friends and Only Fools & Horses.  This was particularly pertinent at the start when fear and uncertainty was at its highest.

For parents of young children, there was also a concern about the effects of lockdown on their mental well-being, particularly the impact of news exposure.  Kids’ TV was used as a way of providing relief and distraction from everyday life and several parents used TV as a means of bonding with their children by introducing them to the content they enjoyed when they were younger such as films and kids’ programmes.

But one of the most important roles of TV during lockdown was providing relief from the monotony of lockdown.  In fact, in our survey, 62% of UK adults stated that TV’s role in relieving boredom had become more important since lockdown whilst 44% said it helped keep their mind off the pandemic.

News junkies and the news blues

It’s no surprise that the importance of TV news rocketed by 45% overall during lockdown and a staggering 124% during the first three weeks alone, according to BARB.   For many people the news - particularly the daily government briefings - became appointment-to-view staples that fed into their new household routines.

One overarching theme that emerged was that TV was very much seen as a credible, trusted news source with integrity. Many participants mentioned checking social media regularly during lockdown, but most were mistrustful of news on social media platforms.  In fact, 70% of people said they trusted TV as a source of news and information a great deal or a fair amount, versus just 28% for social media. TV was the most trusted medium overall.


The news blues

However, as lockdown progressed, news was increasingly seen as a ‘necessary evil’ that created a heightened state of anxiety for many if not kept in check, particularly with the availability of app updates and online news bulletins announcing the daily death rates and pinging them to people’s phones.  By the end of lockdown, most households had reverted to more normal and limited patterns of consumption.

The role of lockdown on buying behaviour & advertising

A higher state of consciousness and experimentation

Unsurprisingly, lockdown changed our buying behaviour. The luxury of choice shrunk for most, particularly during the first phase, and local shops and small business plugged the gaps.  Stock availability and the speed of delivery overrode brand preference for many of our participants and became an acceptable trade-off given the circumstances.

In addition, the desire to support local small business owners through tough times became hugely apparent and new emotional connections with these businesses were formed that many hoped would last well beyond lockdown.

Some participants mentioned that their new shopping habits were likely to stick post-lockdown highlighting the bizarre opportunity that this crisis has offered to brands that were able to weather the storm and continue advertising (as supported here by Richard Shotton).

The importance of TV advertising in the post-COVID era

Of course, the COVID crisis caused major changes to the ad-market and that had a huge impact on TV advertising.  Many brands and sectors were unable to trade, businesses that relied primarily on footfall were forced to adapt to online and demand for other services, such as online retail, surged.  This totally changed the face of TV advertising and the expectation of TV viewers. The nature of creative shifted as ads could no longer be made in the same ways they were before, but importantly, the tone and nature of ads shifted with the seriousness of the crisis.

The brands that were noticed and appreciated during lockdown were those that reflected the situation through their TV ads and provided reassurance that they were ‘doing the right thing’ by both their customers and staff.  The supermarkets and online retailers were notable examples.

The changing face of creativity

The appetite for relatable content - seeing real people and real situations was not only necessary given the creative constraints but also welcomed by viewers who wanted to see brands showing their social responsibility and duty of care to customers.  For this reason, the downgraded quality of TV ads during the first phase of lockdown was not viewed as a barrier, but a positive signal that advertisers were working within these new constraints and taking appropriate action.

As the weeks moved on an appetite for ‘lighter’ and more humorous ads (though still expressing a duty of care) started to emerge and brands needed to work harder to create stand-out.

Human connection and deeper brand building was viewed as far more impactful than overt selling (more so than normal) but there was also a very practical desire amongst our respondents for advertisers to show people how to keep busy, improve their living space and stay safe.

Brands have a duty of care - trust and transparency will remain key

It was evident that our participants had found a new appreciation of the smaller things in life – time spent with friends and family, summer BBQs, days out etc. and there was an understandable apprehension about looking too far ahead once restrictions were lifted.

People craved reassurance that advertisers have put the necessary precautions in place and expect to see advertisers demonstrating social responsibility moving forwards.  Given the level of trust that viewers inherently have in TV - and the integral role it has played during this crisis - TV advertising is the natural platform through which to reassure consumers.

Viewers appreciated that they can see the precautions designed to keep them safe through TV advertising – they know it’s not just lip-service and that is pivotal to how they feel about getting out there and back into shop over the coming months.  This is important as according to research by Ipsos, at the time of writing, over half of the UK population (56%) felt that opening business puts too many people at risk and 41% wanted ads to provide them with information about staying safe.

Importantly, viewers want brands to show them a glimpse of the future, looking forward with positive light-heartedness and showing how new brand experiences will be enjoyable as well as safe.  In our survey, 41% of people cited the desire for positivity in ads and 35% craved humour versus 31% who wanted to see ‘normality’ and pre-lockdown life reflected.


In summary

  1. TV was a valued source of comfort, connection and distraction during lockdown, especially for those shielding.  Not only was it the most trusted source of information, but it helped ease the mood and provide an important window to the world for those who were temporarily cut off from those around them.
  2. Lockdown has instigated many new TV habits and routines and diversified the content viewers watch.  TV programming has also brought families together, which is something that is likely to stick for many households moving forwards.
  3. Lockdown has provided an opportunity for viewers to explore new platforms (such as BVOD and SVOD services) and integrate them into their viewing repertoires. 
  4. Lockdown has created major shifts in buying behaviour. There is a heightened state of consumer consciousness has encouraged people to shop ‘small and local’ and online retail has become increasingly important.
  5. TV advertising will play a pivotal role moving forwards in demonstrating how consumers can start to return to normal in a safe and responsible way.
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