4 Media Predictions for 2021

January 19, 2021
January 19, 2021

We look at 4 media predictions as we move into 2021.

2020 was a year unlike any other in our history. Towards the end of 2019, although news that a strange, pneumonia like disease had broken out in a lesser-known Chinese city had begun to worm its way through to the mainstream, few people back then predicted just how profound the changes wrought by COVID-19 would be.

The pandemic dominated our lives last year; a downright bizarre US Presidential election, Brexit and the rise of a new civil rights movement were all cast in its shadow. The effects on the media world have been similarly profound, as lockdowns and various social distancing regulations rapidly shattered old models and methods and created new ones in their place.

As we move into 2021 and with the pandemic nowhere near over, we’ll likely witness further changes and trends as the world discovers just what the new normal will be, many of which will be created or accelerated by COVID-19.

Here are 4 media predictions for 2021

1) TV streaming will continue to surge

2020 was a huge year for streaming platforms as many people binged while stuck at home. Pre-pandemic, these services were already popular and growing – by the end of Q1 2020 53% of all UK households were subscribed to at least 1 video-on-demand service, up 5.2% on the previous quarter, while 24% subscribed to 2 or more platforms.

However, as the crisis bit and lockdown measures were enforced, TV watching and online streaming surged. A study by media watchdog Ofcom released in August 2020 found that time spent on subscription streaming services doubled in April alone, and from April to July people were watching the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ for 1 hour 11 minutes per day.

Across this period, 12 million people subscribed to a new service and 3 million of them had never joined a service previously. The momentum would seem to be far from over – many commentators believe this is just the beginning of the VOD takeover of the TV market, and our first media prediction for 2021 is that it may well see online video services become the biggest source of global TV and video revenue.

There is an enormous thirst for content – new research from Statista.com showed that Disney+ was used by 26% of VOD subscribers by the end of 2020, despite having launched just the previous March. Worldwide, Disney+ is said to have already surpassed its 2024 target for users.  Original content will drive new growth – especially as many of the “heritage” programmes and films on platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix are being taken back by the owners of those rights for use on their own streaming services.

As the war between the platforms heats up there will be more and more investment in content as they race to produce the next Stranger Things or The Mandalorian. Given the likelihood that social distancing restrictions will apply deep into 2021, there is also scope for Hollywood movies to be run on streaming platforms – in October Disney elected to pull the Pixar produced ‘Soul’ from cinemas and release it on Disney+ instead.

Meanwhile, in the US Warner Brothers has decided to exclusively stream their entire 2021 movie slate on HBO Max. Wherever this happens it will doubtless be another prime mover driving streaming platform growth.

2) Cinemas begin the road to recovery

2020 was an appalling year for cinema admissions in the UK, with the pandemic wiping around £1 billion from box office sales. While final numbers for the year have yet to be released, it is expected that admissions will be around the 40 million mark (around 75% down on 2019), the worst since records began back in 1928.

During lockdowns, cinemas have had to close altogether for long stretches of time, and even when the rules are relaxed, with studios either postponing new releases or simply streaming them on associated VOD platforms, UK cinemas have either elected to restrict opening hours or close altogether.

In October, when MGM decided to postpone the release of the long-awaited James Bond film ‘No Time To Die’ a second time, to April 2021, Cineworld decided to temporarily shut its 127 UK cinemas. At time of writing, they have tentative plans to reopen in May, although it is far from certain that they will avoid closing some outlets permanently.

The short-term outlook for cinemas is therefore bleak, and even when cinemas do re-open, it is likely that there will still be some reluctance from the public to return. The major studios are clearly planning for this, moving a whole slate of blockbusters from 2021 to 2022 – ‘Avatar 2’, ‘The Batman’, ‘Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’, ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’, ‘The Matrix 4’, ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ and the as yet untitled Indiana Jones picture.

There will still be a glut of delayed movies running later in 2021 for movie-goers to enjoy, and although it remains to be seen whether studios will hedge their bets and continue to use VOD platforms (perhaps as a hybrid with cinematic releases), should the vaccine roll-out proceed as projected, a recovery should begin to be seen in the summer.

Long term, should the cinema chains weather the storm, 2022 could be a huge year for them, with many exciting big-budget releases coupled with an audience champing at the bit with pent-up demand.

3) Live events return but the virtual event is here to stay

Like cinema, live, in person events like concerts, theatre, sports, business conferences and trade expos have been hammered by COVID-19. While top-flight sport (notably football) has limped on largely in the absence of spectators, most other events have been postponed or simply cancelled altogether. In the world of business, many live events have been replaced by virtual ones, including full conferences (with a mix of streamed live content and pre-recorded material) and webinars while millions of us are now fully familiar with the ubiquitous Zoom meeting.

Live music has also used technology – 2020 was the year rock went virtual! Music fans across the world were glued to their computers and TVs watching ticketed concerts, festivals, awards and the like, filmed in 4K high-def with cameras covering every view. Here in the UK, the Wireless Festival was attended virtually by over 130,000 people from across the globe.

Once the pandemic passes (or at least is controlled via vaccines) it is certain there will again be massive pent-up demand – be it people desperate to get their concert fix or companies hankering after meeting their customers and stakeholders. Informa, the world’s largest exhibitions operator, has seen a strong spike in their share value off the back of the vaccine roll-out and are confidently predicting in person events returning with a bang later in 2021. Should things continue as expected this sounds realistic, but there is no doubt that live events will now operate in a new environment replete with virtual tech options.

Many companies have found going virtual has resulted in higher event attendance with fewer drop-out levels, and meetings have been made easy with platforms like Zoom. There have been major cost-savings and levels of ROI have markedly improved. With music and concerts, the use of technology has again exposed their events to a far larger potential audience, as well as allowing immersive virtual reality experiences to be enjoyed.

Many new business opportunities are being opened up by such developments. So our third media prediction for 2021 is that live events will indeed return, but they will be changed forever, blending in with virtual tech to maximise audiences, revenues and save on costs.

4) Social Media – a year of challenges

While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on many business models, social media performed strongly through 2020. There was an almost instantaneous increase in usage across all the major platforms as the pandemic bit in March – Facebook reported messaging was up 50% and WhatsApp also had a major spike in that month – 40%. There was also huge growth in engaged usership on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn. Memes and short videos were everywhere as people tried to entertain and cheer up their friends and family.

News and information content in social media also grew massively in a year marked not just with COVID-19, but by the most covered (and downright bizarre) US Presidential election in history, a new civil rights movement and the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Social media also began to make moves in the world of e-commerce in earnest with the launch of the likes of Instagram Shops, Facebook Shops and Pinterest Shopping Ads.

However, our last media prediction for 2021 is that it is likely to be a more challenging year for the social media giants. On a basic level, with the prospect of stay-at-home measures being lifted, screen time is likely to take a dive as people reconnect with the outside world and spend time with friends and family. The big US tech giants are likely going to have to contend with increased regulatory scrutiny with the incoming Biden administration, as concerns grow about the level of influence and control these media powerhouses exert over individual lives.

There have already been the beginnings of antitrust activity looking to potentially break up Facebook, and 2021 should see further major moves to regulate the social media giants. In an era of the rise of conspiracy theories, dubious online information, outright “fake news” and hate speech on social media, heavy pressure is now being placed on the companies to take responsibility for the content on their platforms.

This has been something of a tightrope for these organisations up until now  – they have largely always been at pains to stress they are merely platforms hosting content from users rather than publishers, as if they were the latter, it would likely involve them having to massively expand their operations to closely monitor everything appearing on their sites.

We’ve already witnessed the likes of Facebook and Twitter marking content as “disputed” (primarily after the US Presidential election) and they are beginning to attempt to censor some of the more outlandish anti-mask and anti-vaxx messages on their platforms during this time of crisis. Expect 2021 to see the social media giants paying far closer attention to content to prevent any governmental action being taken.

Read more:

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Will the newspaper disappear?

The effects of the pandemic on the world of media in the last year have been profound. With it nowhere near over, further change is likely. We look at 4 media predictions as we move into 2021.
Sarah Hughes
Many commentators believe this is just the beginning of the VOD takeover of the TV market, and 2021 will see online video services become the biggest source of global TV and video revenue