While Indians stay confined within the four walls of their homes to quarantine themselves against the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19), which has infected hundreds across the country, consumption of content on TVs and smartphones has predictably increased.

According to a report released on Friday by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) and market research firm Nielsen, the number of weekly viewing minutes spent watching television in the country increased 8% to 959 billion minutes. In absolute terms this translates into an increase of 70 billion minutes in week 11 (week starting March 14) as compared to the period between week 2 to week 4 (January 11 to January 31). TV’s average daily reach in this period increased 6% to 592 million viewers who spent an average of three hours and 52 minutes watching TV per day.

The other, smaller screen that has given television tough competition in recent times – the smartphone – also saw traction vis-à-vis time spent by users on it. In the week marked by the Covid-19 disruption, the time spent per user per week on their smartphones increased 6% to 25 hours in the period between March 16 and March 22. Users spent 32 minutes per week consuming news content (up 17% from the period between January 13 and February 2); 277 minutes on chat-based services (up 23%); 242 minutes on social networking (up 25%) and 219 minutes on video-on-demand services (up 3%).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on March 24, wherein he called for a complete lockdown of the country to combat the Coronavirus crisis, saw a record viewership of 197 million people who spent a combined time of 3,891 million minutes on the address. With 133 million unique viewers turning into the broadcast, Modi’s address trumped the viewership of the final match of the IPL (Indian Premier League).

With people working from home, kids staying homebound and away from schools and families huddled together in their respective houses, general entertainment and movies have emerged as the top two genres of entertainment consumed by Indians over the last few days. Viewership has risen 20% among kids, 8% among males and 9% among females. Interestingly, growth is being driven by a 20% increase in daytime (non-primetime) viewership in this period.

“In these challenging times where social distancing is being practised and people are staying at home, the TV has become people’s window to the world for information on what is happening out there and also the anchor around which families are bonding,” says Prathyusha Agarwal, chief consumer officer, Zee Entertainment Enterprises. Zee, which is India’s oldest and largest homegrown broadcaster, has seen a spike in viewership similar to that of the industry, Agarwal stated.

But a complete halt in production of video entertainment content has called for different programming strategies on the part of TV networks. Zee, for instance, has replaced long-running serials it usually airs during the primetime hours in the evening with limited series branded Pyaar Vyaar Originals, building a narrative about love and how it can help tide over the most challenging times. For the non-primetime hours, Zee is thematically packaging existing fiction and non-fiction content, including one-hour specials of existing serials, talent shows and award shows. This is being aired along with a vast library of over 4,800 movies in its library across various Zee channels spanning different Indian languages.

But will the hiatus in new production not impact broadcasters in the long run? Not too much, says Agarwal. Fresh production of long-running serials is most relevant to primetime programming, she says. This only accounts for 25% of a channel’s programming needs. Based on the library of content that Zee already has it can easily program content for the next eight weeks, says Agarwal. Beyond that, the network can bring back on-demand content that resonates with viewers. In a similar move, state-owned Prasar Bharti, which runs the Doordarshan bouquet of channels, recently announced that it will bring back the dramatised version of epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharat, which became hugely popular in the 1980s and 1990s, before the advent of cable television.

Despite the soaring viewership, the television industry faces a peculiar irony at present. Normally, higher viewership should translate into higher advertising – both in volume and tariff realisation terms. But in the present scenario, with most Indian companies reeling under the impact of an economic lockdown, advertisers are tightening purse strings. “With business declining dramatically, the advertising money available in the market has also shrunk,” says Ashish Sehgal, chief growth officer – advertisement revenue, Zee Entertainment Enterprises.

“The situation is very fluid and everyone is taking calls on a week-on-week basis,” says Sehgal. FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) accounts for around 60-70% of advertising on linear television and e-commerce had emerged as large advertiser to account for around 8% of the market. Due to the supply chain disruptions over the last few days, since the lockdown began, companies engaged in these sectors had pulled back on ads since their products weren’t reaching the consumer. But with the central and state governments undertaking initiatives to allow for the free movement of essential products and services, the situation may improve and these advertisers might come back into the market, Sehgal says. “What happens in April might be a little unpredictable but more clarity will emerge as time progresses and the exact extent of the lockdown becomes clear.”

Even as advertiser shy away, broadcasters are leaving no stone unturned to lure them back. Sehgal stated that he has personally written to the heads of several media agencies, requesting them to advise clients on the merits of advertising during a period of crisis in order to make a more lasting impression on the consumers’ minds. “At the end of the day the economy can only come back on track on the back of spending. For advertisers in categories where business has completely shut down, we are willing to work with companies and offer them advertising inventory at subsidised rates,” Sehgal said.

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