A history lesson: TV should be ready for post-COVID cultural revolution

by Andrew Dickens

Let’s rewind to the days just after the Allies won the Second World War: street parties, flag waving, an abundance of Victoria Sponge cake, jubilation across Piccadilly and Leicester Square, families reunited across Britain. These are the images that stand out from that famous (now colourised) archive footage of what, at the time, must have felt like absolute euphoria – an unimaginable release after six years of pain, struggle and sacrifice from an entire population.

While COVID-19 is a different and – hopefully – much shorter global crisis (and direct comparisons to worldwide armed conflicts are ill advised) I’m in no doubt that we’ll all experience some kind of similar ‘release’ (relief, victory, whatever we want to call it) in the latter stages of this year. In all likelihood, any such celebratory moment might be more subtle – and I’m not sure you’ll catch me outside my home frantically waving my Union Flag! But once this pandemic comes to a welcome end there will predictably be an extended period of exhilaration – and the television industry will play a huge part in what will be nothing short of a cultural revolution.

A revolution I hear you say? Well, yes, history reminds us that it’s in the aftermath of global crises that cultural renaissances are born. Take the US in 1946 for example, when two-thirds of the country’s population went to the cinema once a week, or the phenomenal outpouring of art during Weimar Culture in 1920s inter-war Germany plagued by hyperinflation, or even the post-war Festival of Britain in 1951 when art, science and industry was celebrated in the name of national recovery.

Fast forward to 2021 and after months of paused productions, postponed festivals and markets, job losses and emergence of funds such as the UK-wide £500m Film and TV Production Restart Scheme, our industry is ready for its own cultural reawakening. And with TV now arguably the world’s most accessible art form, producers have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to shape a post-pandemic content culture.

But the question is: what direction will this content take? What will viewers, some grieving from the loss of loved ones, want to watch? And how much of an affect will lockdown have on our viewing habits?

I’m not sure any programmer, scheduler or acquisition executive can actually say at this stage. It might be a case that travel shows which are currently showcasing much needed escapism temporarily become obsolete once lockdown restrictions are eased. Alternatively, many of us might be so consumed with being outdoors that binge-worthy dramas see a decline in popularity. Will we want more education and self improvement programming? Or could it be that analysts see a spike in uplifting vanilla period scripted efforts, with audiences turning their back on those gritty ITV crime dramas at 9pm?

Whatever the state of our viewing habits (or our minds!) by then, the task of producing, scheduling, acquiring and distributing content in a post-vaccine world will be a challenging one, and viewers’ expectations moving into 2022 and beyond will no doubt be high.

Be warned though, if history teaches us anything, these ‘new cultural dawns’ can be short lived. They’re unique moments that emerge once in a generation, often born out of hardship, sorrow and a national recovery. Today, compared to those post-war years, the difference is that the small screen is now the leading cultural medium in terms of audience reach (thanks largely to the rise of global streaming services and second screen devices). So for our industry it’s best to maximise the window of opportunity once it’s in sight and before any said renaissance becomes compromised by politics, lack of investment or simply a change in the wind.

Andrew Dickens

By Andrew Dickens