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Connections over distraction

While Covid-19 has set in motion a number of changes we could never have anticipated, there is one shift that we’d all been mentally preparing ourselves for since the moment we’d heard the ominous terms ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’ — dialling up our time at home and juicing our DTH (direct-to-home) & OTT (over the top) subscriptions for all they were worth.

TV viewership has soared to an all-time high across genres and languages, as per a joint report published in April by BARC India & Nielsen. Prime-time is now potentially a day-long phenomenon, as Indians switch back and forth between news and movies for a potent mix of information and escapism. In line with global trends, streaming services and OTT platforms are also reporting their own growth spikes, with content consumption starting earlier in the day and lasting longer into the night. Netflix’s Reed Hastings had once famously proclaimed that the brand competes with sleep — but with more hours on hand, that trade-off no longer rings true.

At the DDB Mudra Group, we’ve tried to get past the abstract enormity of these numbers. It’s all too easy to look at the figures and picture people caught up in unthinking content binges, with all the attendant associations of excess and sloth. The truth is that we’re turning to content — to music, movies, TV shows, even memes — to cope.

Comfort content

At one end of the spectrum is a nascent trend we’re calling the rise of ‘comfort content.’ As production schedules have taken a beating, programming has pivoted to the classics. Ramayana and Mahabharata draw billions of eyeballs, Buniyaad is back, Indian sitcoms such as Dekh Bhai Dekh and Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai are in the mix, and Amar Chitra Katha have released their back catalogues, making for easy browsing.

The magnetic ‘pull’ of this content is partly nostalgia around times that we remember as being simpler (even though we all know that memories tell their own stories). More interestingly, these are shows that allow Indians across generations to dip into our collective consciousness, to retrace the steps we took from being a nation that looked inwards, that celebrated its stories and past glories and had no consumption culture to speak of; to one that fell in love with cable TV and global brands; to one that still grapples with questions of social currency, access and the power of affluence and appearances.

In the span of a single day and with just a handful of shows, we can all revisit India from the 80s, 90s and 00s. And as we travel back and forth in time in content capsules, we are also seamlessly recreating viewing rituals from our past. The television in the living room is once again the hub for families accustomed to the pleasures of solo-viewing and the promises of personalised recommendations from SVOD (subscription video on demand) and OTT apps.

Resourceful creativity

As content consumption booms, so does content creation — but with a distinctly contemporary twist. Social media turned us all into ‘personal brands,’ whether we liked it or not. But this is perhaps the first time that resourcefulness has more currency and clout on our feeds than abundance. How will you be interesting when there are no beaches and bars to provide the backdrop to your life? How do you craft your image when you’re in your pajamas? How are you doing more with less? What can you make out of nothing?

Zero-resource creativity is having its moment — moms busting out moves with mops as props, only to go viral on TikTok; teens watching each other play video games on Twitch, and everyone going ‘Live’ on Instagram. For the less adventurous, there is book-spine poetry, micro-sized home makeovers, and ever-reliable cooking and recipe videos, increasingly extolling the virtues of leftovers and the minimisation of waste. There is the expected torrent of memes and GIFs, occupying that uniquely millennial sweet spot of subversion and silliness. They are mostly banal, sometimes amusing, occasionally disconcerting.

With our engagement with each other’s posts and ideas going off the charts, even social media hobbyists report feeling like influencers, with friends and family having a lot to say about content that was once of only passing interest. It’s the exact opposite of what some celebrities seem to be experiencing. Used to adoration (and the obligatory troll), stars are finding their performative normalcy and relatability falling flat.

The New York Times recently declared that celebrity culture is ‘burning,’ and while that might be exaggeration for effect, excess has definitely fallen out of favour. Long drawn by privilege and luxury, we are suddenly wary of it. Authenticity has been a buzzword for years, but it’s what fans and followers seem to be genuinely seeking in this moment. Doctors doing a dance-off move us more than super-star sing-alongs. These are times that demand that people who are accustomed to being in the spotlight take a seat on the sidelines.

It’s a fascinating reversal of the rules. What felt ‘dated’ just a few weeks ago, now has the warm glow of something wholesome and nostalgic. We’re taking our comfort where we can find it, including in spontaneous or semi-spontaneous acts of self-expression. We’ve always loved drama, but our routines have been laid bare and we’re taking a new interest in the ordinary. It seems that we need connection these days, more than we need distractions.

―The Hindu Business Line

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