Shifting Viewing Habits and the Need to Create Diverse, Authentic Entertainment Content

Now is an interesting time to be in the entertainment industry.

For one, streaming has established its place in Hollywood and shifted the industry landscape permanently. In the face of the pandemic, audiences make viewing choices based on the context of their everyday lives, skewing established viewing patterns. At the same time, audiences are calling for more inclusive casting and storylines that reflect diverse life experiences.

Dominique Batiste
Dominique Batiste
Director, Marketing & Partner Insights, ViacomCBS

To understand these shifts happening in the industry today, Invoke spoke with Dominique Batiste, Director of Marketing and Partner Insights at ViacomCBS. Batiste has ten years of qualitative and quantitative media research experience with brands like WeTV, AMC, IFC, Sundance Channel, Food Network, the Cooking Channel, Starz Entertainment, and ViacomCBS. She’s a data-driven creative thinker who knows the industry inside and out and closely watches consumer behavior and viewing choices.

Read on to learn more about how the industry and the viewing experience is changing through the lens of an industry insider.

The ever-changing viewing experience

It’s no secret that the way we consume content has changed greatly over the past five to ten years. OTT and streaming platforms attract today’s consumers by curating a more custom-tailored, on-demand viewing experience.

Batiste reflects: “The number of TV shows and the number of ways in which consumers watch them has exploded at unprecedented levels. Sure there were a number of options five to ten years ago, but it was a way more manageable choice experience.”

The way these choices are presented to consumers has changed, as well.

“Five or ten years ago, it was still more of a bundled world. OTT and streaming services were on the rise, but for the most part, consumers were still getting all their shows in a concentrated place. Now everything is becoming more a la carte,” says Batiste.

Besides the impact the rise of such platforms has had on choice, more competition has given rise to higher-quality content across all platforms. “There’s a need for platforms and networks to keep their competitive edge and their audiences. The only way to level the playing field is to spend more money and to have it feel more high-quality,” Batiste says.

More choice, greater control, and better quality are all side effects of major shifts in viewing behavior.

The pandemic’s impact on viewer choices

Another more recent phenomenon is changing what consumers are choosing to view. COVID-19 has impacted most industries, and the entertainment industry is not an exception. Viewer preferences have shifted during the pandemic as consumers seek content that allows them to escape from the challenges they’re facing in everyday life.

Invoke’s research on COVID-19 media consumption habits found that consumers are steering more towards content that keeps them informed or gives them a reason to laugh during difficult times. In fact, 55% of Americans surveyed report watching more news than they did pre-pandemic and 35% say they watch more comedies than they did before the pandemic.

Batiste explains, “Prior to COVID, shows had more serious tones. Shows that shed light on real issues were resonating more with audiences.” Since the start of COVID, however, viewing priorities have shifted. As Batiste says, “People still like what they like, but there’s been an influx in more feel-good genres like comedy, animation, family, and things that audiences can binge. There’s more of a craving for escapism.”

While these preferences represent a snapshot in time, viewer choices will, again, turn with the tides. Our everyday experiences will continue to shape what we choose to watch.

“I don’t think consumers just stay one way,” Batiste says, “it’s really on how they are feeling, what they’re dealing with in everyday life. And we start to see that in what they’re choosing to watch, so it’s kind of their way of talking to us and telling us what they want to see.”

While it’s impossible to predict the next hot genre or topic in TV and movie content, it’s safe to say that audiences’ viewing choices will be determined by whatever happens next.

Diversity and inclusion’s role in entertainment

Aside from changes brought on by the rise in streaming and the pandemic, the entertainment industry is facing another major transformation. Hollywood giants are finally making diversity and inclusion more of a priority. Audiences are putting pressure on the industry, calling for stories that represent an array of life experiences.

As Batiste puts it, “Audiences are seeking a level of authenticity and representation of diverse characters is part of it, but also representation of diversity in the types of stories being told.”

The past few years have seen a gradual increase in diverse representation on-screen. According to data from UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, people of color accounted for 27.6% of lead actors and 32.7% of all film roles in 2019 — a slight jump from the previous year. Just 15.9% of the top-grossing movies from 2019 had casts consisting of less than 11% minority actors. In 2011, by comparison, more than half of the top-grossing films had less than 11% minority casts.

While the industry is making considerable strides in diverse representation on-screen, it still misses the mark when it comes to diversity in their decision-makers.

“If you have a show with LGBTQ+ characters, Black characters, Hispanic and Latino characters, or characters with disabilities, there should be voices in the writer’s room that can knowledgeably speak to those groups to garner the most authentic perspective,” Batiste says.

Unfortunately, the entertainment industry isn’t where it needs to be when it comes to diverse representation. The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report found that just 14.4% of writers and directors of films released in 2019 were minorities. Similarly, only 13.9% of those on writing credits for 2019 films were people of color.  In 11 major and mid-major studios analyzed, UCLA researchers found that a striking 91% of C-level positions and 93% of senior executive-level positions are held by white people.

So, what needs to be done to ensure that the changes we’re seeing on-screen are being reflected off-screen?

Having a high-ranking role created specifically for “diversity and inclusion” isn’t enough. As Batiste puts it, “Diversity is a very broad term that’s being thrown around in the industry a lot now. There’s been an influx of companies creating positions that are gear to “diversity and inclusion” and while that’s great, I think it’s important to unpack what’s meant by diversity and what those who are hired in these roles are really responsible for. This means going beyond having someone with a title with ‘diversity and inclusion’ in it, but having a designated group of people, not just one, that’s diverse and that‘s addressing diverse issues and actually have the power to make decisions.”

For entertainment companies hiring these diverse decision-makers, making sure their voices are heard and valued once they’re hired is the next step. According to research from the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity, it appears that while diverse writers are entering the conversation, they still face obstacles. 64% of diverse writers participating in the study reported having experienced bias, discrimination, and/or harassment by other members of the writing staff.

Batiste elaborates, “If you’re hiring them to help broaden viewership, to help broaden the workforce when it comes to diversity, then you need to loosen the reins and give them the authority to do just that.”

It’s not enough to hire diverse writers and “decision-makers” if you’re not going to put their valuable insights and unique perspectives to use. Doing so is a detriment to these writers, the organization, the industry, and the audiences who demand more from the industry and ultimately determine what stays on the air.

Striving for authenticity in diverse stories

On top of diverse representation, audiences seek content that strikes them as genuine — and consumers can tell the difference between content that’s authentic and content that’s not.

As Batiste explains, “If a character is supposed to be from the Caribbean and they’re speaking with an accent that is clearly not authentic the audience will call us out as content creators, ‘no, that is not how a Trinidadian would speak. That is not how a Jamaican would speak.’ Audiences are starting to hold us accountable. We have to evolve as an industry and understand there is a higher level of awareness and lower tolerance in society now.  People will seek what they want elsewhere and with so many options now for content and entertainment. It’s not hard to do.”

Despite pressure from audiences and the growing demand for more diverse, authentic stories, the industry is slow to embrace change.

As Batiste outlines, “Many of those in power within our industry are creatures of habit, and oftentimes not receptive to big changes. To be fair, there are trickles of change happening because of the unavoidable demand for it. In my opinion, it needs to progress faster and not only be concentrated in one area of the business but throughout.”

Embracing diverse voices and viewpoints in the entertainment industry is ultimately a win for everyone. More diverse representation in decision-makers makes for more authentic content and better storytelling that reflects a multitude of life and cultural experiences.

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