With the rapid outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we have all been forced to adjust to constantly changing and uncertain circumstances. Large, internet-based companies have been no exception. As we all fully launched into lockdown mode, we coped in various ways, many of which included developing dependencies on binging TV and internet-based streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO. During the height of the outbreak where I’m from, Montclair, New Jersey, I spent countless hours binging new TV shows and watching movies I had always wanted to get around to watching, all as I struggled to keep up with online coursework.
Just as I developed newfound dependency on streaming platforms, these same companies were presented with new opportunities for innovation. Netflix created Netflix Party, a way of synchronously streaming movies and TV shows with friends digitally, in order to compensate for the loss of social TV watching. Netflix, Hulu, and HBO all also added plenty of new content to satiate viewers’ restlessness, like movies that viewers have been requesting for years. Hulu added live news through partnership with ABC News Live for its viewers with its on demand subscription. This facilitated access to COVID-related news feed all included in one place: the Hulu platform itself. Viewers could now check live updates on COVID case statistics, and watch TV and movies without even leaving hulu.com. HBO also added several new titles to its platform during the height of quarantine, and ultimately even reinvented its most popular streaming service, HBO Go, renaming it HBO Max, which includes several new features. HBO has traditionally been known for its exclusivity and for limiting its TV content to TV shows made only by HBO. However, it seems that the pandemic has allowed the platform to expand past its typical selection; HBO Max includes several non-HBO shows, including Friends (which coincidentally was removed from Netflix in January 2020 after years of popularity).
These adjustments have reinvigorated viewers’ interest in TV, raising the question: could the pandemic be… good… for internet-based streaming companies? And, if so, how we do reconcile that? It is hard to deny that these streaming companies have capitalized on our boredom. A more interesting question, however, is how they managed to achieve this. Was it that, with no prospects of leaving our homes for the better part of at least five months, we resorted to consuming tremendous amounts of TV? While this is true, I think it is more likely that it is what they offered that captured our interest in new ways. New content, coupled with new features, offered excitement during a time generally characterized by monotony, dullness, uncertainty, and fear.
TV-based crazes took off rapidly, with the emergence of shows and documentaries like Tiger King and Outer Banks as internet phenomena. These shows achieved a massive amount of popularity during quarantine and—more importantly—became incorporated into all mainstream internet and social media services. Tiger King quickly became a meme, references of which you could find on TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, in the news, and on talk shows (virtually, of course) worldwide. Sensations like Tiger King not only garnered a great deal of attention, but also seemingly became a means of human connection, of which the general population was in dire need. Platforms like Netflix have facilitated human bonding and represented a deviation from the mundane for many people. TV crazes and obsessions with the offerings of streaming platforms have connected people who otherwise would probably never have interacted with each other. Additionally, though at first glance it would appear minimal in real effect, the content Netflix offers has distracted people (at least momentarily) from the pandemic in a way that provides a sense of normalcy. Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and all TV resonate—and will continue to resonate—with people because they represent the comfort of binging a new TV show, having a movie night with friends and family, or even sitting in bed calmly watching one’s favorite series. Seeing your favorite characters or actors alleviates angst—and that is exactly what streaming platforms have provided us with during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With this in mind, where does this leave us? It leaves a sour taste in my mouth to say that these streaming platforms “helped me” by providing me, and many others, with comfort and regularity during unprecedented and terrifying times because I am also fully aware of the fact that they intentionally exploited my discomfort in order to enhance their appeal to viewers. How do we reconcile the fact that while these corporations largely benefited from circumstances that have caused significant detriment for millions of people, they also helped us cope?
Examining streaming platforms this way is definitely disconcerting, but I also think that there is a way to reassure ourselves that we have power to regulate their relevance. In order to realize this, one can study streaming platforms’ responses to the 2020 re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black Americans by the police. Activists have made the movement impossible to ignore, and a response from large companies became absolutely necessary for corporate survival. Most corporations took the easy way out by doing the bare minimum and nothing else. I would argue that streaming platforms fall under that category. Nonetheless, it is positive that Netflix, Hulu, and HBO all featured Black Lives Matter-related content on their platforms in a feeble attempt to center black voices in entertainment. Netflix has arguably been most progressive in this regard, even adding a new genre called “Black Stories,” which features extensive sections entitled “Black Lives Matter,” “Black Superheroes,” “Black Comedy Icons,” “Black Behind the Camera,” “Black Music Legends,” “Black History is American History,” and “Strong Black Lead,” among others. Hulu and HBO have had more underwhelming responses, with each platform adding only a handful of new titles and only featuring a new category of content called “Black Stories.” Though this is certainly the least streaming platforms could have done, it is worth noting that providing viewers with informative and educational content like 13th and I Am Not Your Negro is productive. In addition, the action taken by these streaming platforms demonstrates the fact that, ultimately, internet-based companies are dependent upon the attitudes of their viewers. Realizing this has provided me with some solace. While large streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO take advantage of our dependency on instant access to (commercial-free) TV, it is comforting to know that we have the capability to influence corporate decision-making. Knowing this, young people can continue to apply pressure to corporations to take a stance on social justice initiatives.