Britons spent a third of their waking hours watching TV or online videos in 2020, according to research from the media regulator Ofcom that shows how we were driven to our screens during the pandemic.
The average UK resident watched video content for five hours and 40 minutes a day last year, an increase of an almost an hour on pre-pandemic levels.
The lack of alternative entertainment options boosted the popularity of everything from traditional dramas such as Netflix’s The Crown to watching people play video games on the Twitch streaming service.
Live TV channels still account for the majority of viewing, and there was growth for domestic catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4oD. But the figures raise serious questions about the long-term health of the UK’s traditional broadcasters.
The research lays bare the rapid growth of US-owned streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+. They have transformed the market by outspending traditional broadcasters and luring away many viewers who increasingly turn to them as a default viewing option.
More than 60% of UK households had access to a paid streaming service in 2020, up from 49% a year earlier.
Further growth is expected as the public gets used to paying for popular shows, although this risks leaving people unable to afford subscription packages behind, as seen with the backlash after much of the 2020 Olympics coverage in the UK was placed behind Discovery’s paywall rather than being freely available to watch on the BBC.
The pandemic also convinced many older Britons to subscribe to a streaming service for the first time. Ofcom estimates that the number of UK residents aged 45-74 who had access to Netflix during the pandemic increased by a third.
Netflix has become increasingly aware of the importance of attracting older subscribers in order to maintain growth, as it begins to approach market saturation among the young.
The popularity of Disney+ has grown rapidly among families buying it as a secondary subscription alongside Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Ofcom’s group director for strategy and research, Yih-Choung Teh, said: “TV and online video have proved an important antidote to lockdown life, with people spending a third of their waking hours last year glued to screens for news and entertainment.
“The pandemic undoubtedly turbocharged viewing to streaming services, with three in five UK homes now signed up.
“But with subscriber growth slowing into 2021 and lockdown restrictions easing, the challenge for the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Disney will be to ensure a healthy pipeline of content and keep customers signed up.”
Paradoxically, at the same time that traditional TV channels are facing long-term decline, they have recently recorded record-breaking live audiences for programmes involving major news events, live sport, or where social media attention is driving buzz around a particular show.
Tens of millions of viewers tuned in for Boris Johnson’s coronavirus updates during the pandemic, and for the England football team’s run to the final of Euro 2020 and for episodes of talked-about shows such as the BBC’s Line of Duty.