To Stream or not to Stream?
Students spoke to a desire to watch old comfort shows as well as new releases popular on social media.
If you haven’t noticed by now, people have been spending a bit more time at home in 2020 and 2021 than in previous years. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and HBO Max have been coming into their own as peoples’ main venues for consuming media in recent years, and the pandemic has only increased their number and extended their reach.
For Sarah Jewett ’23, a member of the Dartmouth Film Society, the rise of streaming signals a new way of watching.
“My family, by the beginning of the pandemic, had already been off of cable. We had Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime — that’s basically it,” Jewett said. “But I think, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, we witnessed more of a social media presence of these streaming services. That was the way people would communicate — like with ‘Tiger King.’”
“Tiger King,” a Netflix docu-series about a man who owned and bred tigers in Oklahoma, was released in mid-March, only seven days after former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its first month, the show reached 64 million households, which Netflix itself attributed to people craving distractions while stuck inside under shelter at home orders across the world.
Hopkins Center for the Arts director of film Sydney Stowe said she understands the impulse to look for lighter fare in dark times, and streaming services are the way to do just that.
“During COVID, I couldn’t watch things like ‘Breaking Bad’ because I was not in a mental place where I could see that,” Stowe said. “It really depends on where you are mentally and emotionally.”
Stowe’s own favorites since the start of the pandemic have been shows like “Ted Lasso” and “Schitt’s Creek,” both of which have met critical and popular acclaim for sneaking a lot of heart into digestible packaging.
She noted that it’s nothing new, either, for people to turn to media designed to put a smile on your face in times of national tragedy.
“‘Mamma Mia’ opened on Broadway in September of 2001 right after 9/11. People thought, ‘Really? an ABBA musical?’ And it was a runaway success,” Stowe said. “And ... during the Depression, people watched Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies. Those were the most popular, because people need an escape.”
What’s more of an escape than spending five minutes browsing through Netflix’s seemingly endless catalogue? Tiny boxes flash out from the screen promising that, whether you’re looking for a new adventure or a return to a familiar favorite, five minutes from now, you can forget you’re even on your couch, wearing the same pair of sweats you’ve had on for three days now.
Revisiting old, nostalgic favorites has also been a boon during the pandemic, notes Jewett.
“I think something a lot of people were going through was re-watching comfort shows,” she said. “I re-watched ‘Gilmore Girls’ and ‘Parks and Recreation.’ There is something [comforting] about being able to access things on streaming services.”
Dartmouth Film Society co-director Zea Eanet ’22 can relate. She also revisited Stars Hollow this past year in her rewatch of “Gilmore Girls.”
It’s not just comfort shows that have seen swarms of watchers — this year has been huge for news shows, too. In addition to comfort watches, streaming platforms like Netflix have had a huge year in terms of new shows, too. This fall, “The Queen’s Gambit” created cultural shockwaves, becoming Netflix’s most-watched limited series of all time and leading to an 87% national increase in the sale of chess sets — and a 603% increase in the sale of chess books — in the month following its release.
Eanet, herself a fan of the book which the series is based on, thinks that the show’s popularity says a lot about the power held by streaming platforms and the content they promote.
“‘Queen’s Gambit’ is a really interesting example because it was such a specific, niche narrative and Netflix said: ‘This is what everyone loves now,’” Eanet said. “And I know 15 people who picked up chess, and that’s probably a good thing.”
Stowe agreed, and laughed at the inextricable influence of social media on what we choose to watch.
“Are we sheep?” Stowe said. “Are we just watching it because everyone else is watching it?”
Pandemic shows like “Tiger King”, “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Bridgerton” have proven that streaming services can shift the attention of tens of millions of people to one thing at one time. The pandemic didn’t endow Netflix with this influence, but based on the record-breaking numbers of all three shows, it’s easy to imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic has made everyone more friendly with their TV remotes.
Ultimately, Stowe’s biggest question is what moviegoing will look like in the future now that streaming services have a near-monopoly on our attention.
“People have now spent a year watching movies at home,” Stowe noted. “One of the biggest concerns I had about movies even before COVID was people saying, ‘I’m just going to wait until it comes out at home.’ Now, it’s already out on Amazon and Netflix.”
The window between movies being shown in theaters and being released to streaming has somewhat collapsed, and for the Hop — which hosts a theater that before the pandemic screened movies regularly — this represents a challenge, Stowe said.
“Are the people who want to go out at night going to go to a movie? If you and your friends are gonna go out, are you going to go to a restaurant or a movie? I don’t think I have any answers,” Stowe said. “Until the Hop reopens, I don’t know how people are going to feel about coming back.”