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What will you watch during the coronavirus pandemic? A look at your choices

Experts explain why we watch what we watch during a pandemic

This combination photo shows, clockwise from top left, the Hulu logo on a window at the Milk Studios space in New York, the Amazon logo in Santa Monica, Calif., the Apple TV+ logo displayed outside the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles, and a screen grab of the Disney Plus streaming service on a computer screen.
This combination photo shows, clockwise from top left, the Hulu logo on a window at the Milk Studios space in New York, the Amazon logo in Santa Monica, Calif., the Apple TV+ logo displayed outside the Regency Village Theatre in Los Angeles, and a screen grab of the Disney Plus streaming service on a computer screen.
Associated Press

Your days have been disrupted, and life probably isn’t what it used to be. You have time on your hands. Time for family. Time for friends. Time for Zoom and Slack. Time for boredom.

And, yes, time for Netflix. Or Hulu. Or Amazon Prime. Or Disney Plus, HBO Go, Apple TV Plus, YouTube TV, CBS All Access, Quibi and, well, you get the idea.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of our daily lives. We’re no longer enthralled with live sports, box office hits and live concerts. We’re stuck in our homes watching classic NBA games, virtual concerts from artists’ bedrooms and downloading early release films because we didn’t get a chance to see them with a bucket of popcorn.

So what do you watch? That’s a simple enough question. There are plenty of recommendations out there from binge-worthy shows to one-hit wonders to classics you never got a chance to watch.

But everyone is different when it comes to watching media in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. Some embrace “comfort food” TV — shows they love or find comforting. Others embrace pandemic shows to really dig into the ongoing world.

Kyra Hunting, an assistant professor of media and arts studies at the University of Kentucky, told the Deseret News that Americans will follow similar habits when it comes to watching content in this new age, mostly due to the algorithms of each streaming service.

“I think the algorithm is actually going to be a really big driver” of what we watch, she said.

“I do think once it settles down a little bit, and people start making decisions more purposefully about what they’re watching, we are going to see a lot of like comfort food TV,” she said, “which are those things that you loved once upon a time and you can feel like you’re coming home to.”

How algorithms shape our streaming lives

Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu all have their most popular shows. You open any of those platforms and you see the service’s top 10 shows, or trending shows, or must-watch shows. There’s no telling how those shows got there — these companies are often mum about their criteria — so it’s unclear whether or not these shows are the most popular.

But people are stressed out and they want to escape, so they find the quickest option. They watch it. They tell their friends. And on and on it goes, said Hunting.

“I’m not trying to imply those aren’t things that are actually popular, but like, are they popular because they’re appearing on the banner? Or are they popular because people really love them is the thing that it’s hard to know,” Hunting said.

That’s not to say Netflix or Disney aren’t being accurate about what’s popular, but it’s important to know the context.

“Why is it popular? Is it popular because it was pushed really hard on (the) banner? People were clicking it, and then it became more popular so now it’s popular and more people are clicking it because it’s popular, et cetera, et cetera. We just don’t know what all goes into it,” she said.

A look at the Disney Plus menu.
A look at the Disney Plus menu.
Disney

One person who may know what goes into algorithms and streaming services is Meg Whitman, the CEO of Quibi, a new streaming service that launched in April during the coronavirus pandemic.

Quibi is unique in a lot of ways in that it offers videos you can watch horizontally and vertically. The service offers shows that are eight to 10 minutes long. It’s short, quick stories to watch during your “in-between moments” — like when you’re waiting in line or when you have a break between your two activities.

Whitman told the Deseret News that her service is launching at a time where people have nothing to do but watch content, and Quibi offers them a new method to watch stories unfold. She spoke to the challenge of knowing what people are looking for.

“In this business, you never quite know what people are going to like,” she said. “And it’s sort of the alchemy of the business.”

She said it’s “very hard to predict” what people watch in the modern age. But that’s why Quibi “decided to have a broad array of genres, a broad array of storylines, to make sure we had something that everyone would like.”

She added, “People are very different in terms of their tastes and content.”

But Hunting, the professor, said there’s always one sure bet to what people will watch — something comforting, something nice back home.

Find comforting shows

Let’s face it — there are just some shows that are going to be more popular than others because they’re comfortable. It’s why shows like “The Office,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld” continue to get views even though they are well past their prime. These are comfort shows — ones we can’t forget no matter how much they age.

Comfort can come in another way, too. There are shows and movies out there that might not be your go-to show, but ones that offer a sense of stability and relation.

For example, shows about community might be the right thing to watch during a pandemic since so many of us need to rely on the community coming together, Hunting said.

A show like the CW’s “iZombie” (TV-14) might be a good fit, according to Hunting, since it features a community that’s been asked to stay inside amid a zombie apocalypse. (The zombies, though, aren’t as treacherous as they are on “The Walking Dead” since they actually have feelings.) The zombies are fully-formed humans that have to live in a community without others like them.

But this isn’t isolated to only streaming services and television. Greg Gage, owner of Black Cat Comics in Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News that comic book fans have been asking him for books on pandemics and the apocalypse as a way to connect to what’s going on right now. The same can apply to television shows and films. We watch what we watch based on how we feel.

“It depends on the person and what they need to deal with, you know, panic or uncertainty,” Gage said. “I think it’s in proportion to how people are actually dealing with” the coronavirus pandemic.

Ashley Hinck, an assistant professor for the communication department at Xavier University, said in the email that “fans are good at rewatching stuff (we like to read and reread, watch and rewatch). It’s how fans cope between seasons, between books, etc.”

But you should challenge yourself

But Hunting said people may also want to embrace new shows. In fact, she said it’s the perfect time to challenge yourself.

“I feel like it’s a really good time to try and get out of the viewing silos we’ve been in for a long time,” she said.

“This is the best time to try and challenge yourself to find something that you otherwise wouldn’t ordinarily watch.”

So have you always meant to watch the Golden Globe winners? Do it now. Want to watch that documentary? Jump on it. Now you have all the time in the world.

“This is a really good time to try and explore the art and the creativity that’s happening in different parts of this country but also different parts of other countries,” she said. “And spending some time with all that diverse humanity and all that diverse art, I think it’s a good way to approach this.”