“People are stuck at home and I think they need a diversion, and I think they need to be entertained,” said Adam Silverof the league developing ideas like 2K tournaments and H-O-R-S-E competitions to pass the time. The abrupt stoppage of the sports schedule forced networks to scramble and create content out of seemingly thin air. A 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls was pushed up several months to satiate audiences. Burke Magnus, ESPN’s vice president of programming, said that his goal was to provide theme or stunt event shows to act as a diversion from our everyday lives. Watching childhood playground games may have seemed frivolous just a month ago, but basketball’s simplicity is well-suited for small, easy distractions. All you need is a ball and a hoop to create diversion, entertainment, and some semblance of the communal experience that the game provided just weeks earlier.
The percentages show how quickly our habits shifted this past month: ESPN ratings dropped almost 50% compared to the same time last year, with other networks estimated to decline up to 25% in viewership without sports. Streaming minutes for video increased 50% from last year, with 156 billion minutes of content consumed during one week in March. Music streaming went down 11.4% on Spotify, with podcast downloads decreasing 20%. Desktop computersreplaced smartphones as our preferred form of visiting websites. On how much those habits will stick once we return to some nebulous normal, a Microsoft executives believes that the pandemic will permanently change how we work and learn going forward.
Marshall McLuhan coined the oft-used phrase that the medium is the message. He reasoned that it’s the medium, as opposed to the content, that “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Buoyed by the intimacy of the stripped-down experience, the NBA was early in using live streaming on platforms like Instagram Live as an awareness tool during the pandemic. Inevitably, artists of all scales turned to live streaming. DJ D-Nice created the first water cooler moment of our new reality in performing on Instagram Live for 160,000 viewers, reinforcing the importance of experiencing - and letting others know that you are experiencing - viral moments. The average viewing for live performances on Twitch increased from 92,000 to 574,000 viewers over March. Steph Curry’s livestream with Dr. Anthony Fauci reached 50,000 viewers.
Those communal experiences of live streams fulfilled the best promises of social media, rolling the resiliency of human creativity, survival of the arts, and the desire for connection into one innovation.
Yet coinciding with the rise of live-streaming, linear television also reported record viewing numbers. Let’s Make a Deal attracted its largest audience ever during the final week of March. The Price is Right recorded its highest viewership in 11 years, while Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, and Chicago PD all had their highest rating in years. The NBA has navigated the uneasy tension between the importance of linear television ratings and the immeasurable influence of social media. The ratings show an even more pronounced demographic gap between the two mediums.
“The linchpin for keeping people engaged in linear television is news and sports. This black-swan event may be a boon for one but it’s a serious threat to another,” said Moody’s senior vice-president Neil Begley on the financial impact that the suspension of sports would have on television.
And not all television viewership is the same, with different meanings based on demographic. A Turner Sports ad executive observed that NBA fans are difficult to “reach in a linear way” and that they do “have the traditional viewing patterns that you’ll find in the TV landscape.” While ratings and visits to ESPN’s website are both down this past month, the average engagement for Sportscenter and ESPN on Instagram grew 78% and 42% from the same time last year.
“There is a big and fascinating issue about the stickiness of some of these changes,” said professor Doug Noonan on how temporary and permanent behaviors learned under lockdown will impact society in the future. We may not understand what specifically sticks, but we implicitly understand that there must be fundamental shifts that will affect television and social media, our relationship with sports, and sports viewing.
We often speak of habits in personal terms - say, an attempt to stop smoking - as it seems an impossible task to wrap our minds around a mass shifting of habits in real time driven by an indefinite stoppage of what we once knew as normal life and technology. Can live-streaming remain popular once our quarantine is lifted? Will working from home shift the balance between desktop and mobile experiences, which could also impact smartphone usage?
If we were relying upon this past month to come to some sort of truce and understanding in the shifting relationship of television and social media, an acknowledgment between the traditional and the contemporary, we’ve appeared to have doubled down on our chosen platforms. We use our chosen screens to connect and belong, for what McLuhan referred to as human association. That makes these specific habits stick, as these mediums are how we experience this world. Especially now, with infinite time on our own.
The rumored proposal for the NBA’s return sequesters players in Vegas to finish out the season in empty gyms. It is an idea rooted in reality television, transmitted to sport.
Though as much as we need distraction, players traveling to an isolated city could create an unintentional symbol between those who have access to immediate testing and those without. That divide would backtrack on the promise of players using their platform as more than just athletes during these times, in becoming impromptu public health representatives by sharing their own experiences. If asked to close out the season under this context, individuals would be flattened to one dimension to fulfill the single purpose of playing games: they are entertainers. We are the audience. The roles are explicit.
The audience would also have to get used to the sparseness of noiseless arenas, as dramatizing empty space would require a new visual language without the rhythm of crowd reactions. Like music in a movie, we’re used to taking cues from home crowds to heighten the sense of importance in crescendoing moments during games. We have examples in soccer of crowdless matches, with play deconstructed into its very basics of movement, skills, and on-field communication between players. We miss the context of significance, that an event must be important if thousands of people are also watching and reacting in-person. Players are conductors of mass emotions. At the very least, the high-five will be in jeopardy.
We still have a space for heroes, for something to celebrate, and a daily release of emotion. We transferred our nightly cheers for athletes and games to clapping for health care workers. We wondered whether our relationship to players would change post-pandemic, if there would be a reevaluation of what we consider important and of whom we decide to elevate. But that is looking at sports through a narrow lens. It wasn’t only about the players, but it was also about us creating a community around the game. That will remain with or without fans in arenas, whether we’re watching on television or engaging through a smartphone.