The Quarantined Audience: What We Are Watching

by Elisabeth Sereda June 18, 2020
A child wathing TV during the pandemic, June 2020

gareth copley/getty images

As summer TV looks sad, if not bleak amidst reruns and a lack of original programming due to the pandemic shutdown, there seems to be a clearer picture emerging as to what themes speak to audiences and may continue to thrive in the fall.

The average number of new shows on network TV in the past three summers was roughly 50. This year we are looking at 27, and some are only partially finished. America’s Got Talent has returned with live shows pre-taped before the lockdown and the popular talent show, loved all over the world not just in this country, may be just what the doctor ordered: uplifting, moving (sometimes to tears) and in the cases of wild acrobatic performances by some contestants even suspenseful, it is positive viewing experience for anyone who still believes in hope and a better world.

Yet when it comes to scripted series the path is not quite clear. As the reality program Cops has been canceled, will the interest in fictional police shows wane as well? Could this be the end of the long-running Law & Orders? Of the beloved NCIS and its spinoffs and other shows that never showed signs of ratings slumps? Dick Wolf, creator of Law & Order fired a showrunner last week after the man posed with a gun in a tone-deaf picture on social media, proclaiming that he will defend law enforcement. The man was hired to work on the spinoff of SVU starring Chris Meloni, Mariska Hargitay’s original partner. “I will not tolerate this conduct, especially during our hour of national grief,” said Wolf in a statement. This, however, is unlikely to hurt the new series given the appeal of the original one.

Comcast came out with a study on which content has increased in the past three months which may give us a look into the future: drama watching has increased 30%, news 29%, comedies 18%, reality shows 15% and action and adventure by 15%. That bodes well for crime dramas and medical shows. Rumor has it that at least 6 networks and streamers are furiously working on pandemic series that center around healthcare workers, something that could have been expected given our quest for real-life heroes, even if they are fictionalized.

But the recent political events have given rise to another genre, one that is easily available on the big streaming channels: the socio-political documentary. Whether viewers go back to Ava DuVernay’s nominated The 13th about Lincoln’s 13th amendment to the constitution that ended slavery but left a loophole, to educate themselves about black history, or John Ridley’s new film Let It Fall: LA 1982-1992. In it, the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave chronicles the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, a topic that could not be more timely right now.

Biographies are also popular: from legendary writer, poet and activist Maya Angelou (And Still I Rise) to Congressman and activist John Lewis (John Lewis – Get in the Way), according to data, viewers look to the past to explain the present.