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Analysis: Ofcom's Online Nation report

24 Jun 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Analysis: Ofcom's Online Nation report

Following the publication of Ofcom's annual report into our online consumption habits, Raymond Snoddy sifts through the findings to understand its implications

Of course I have been using Zoom during the Covid-19 lockdown – to read stories to grandsons, to talk regularly to co-editors on a planned book, and slightly more stilted “meetings” with friends for pre-dinner drinks.

Next Tuesday the future extends to using related technology to chair an online session on Boris Johnson and the media.

According to the latest Ofcom report on screen use in a time of crisis, there is absolutely nothing unusual about any of that. We have all been at it – or at least millions of us.

UK users of Zoom, the virtual meeting platform, surged from 659,000 in January to 13 million adults in April, a growth of 2,000 per cent.

Anyone with shares in Zoom who worked out by January that a pandemic was on the way will have done very nicely, although you would probably have had to be a Mandarin speaker to pull it off.

And so it goes on. Ofcom finds that Houseparty, the app which combines group-video calls, grew from 175,000 adult visitors to 4 million and the Chinese-owned video sharing app TikTok benefited hugely from current circumstances, up from 5.4 million adult visitors in January to 12.9 million in April.

Overall a dramatic change occurred during the period of lockdown with adults spending a record four hours a day online on average – a rise of more than 30 minutes.

As a result, Ofcom notes that one in three now watch online video more than traditional TV, while two in five are making videos themselves. New industries are being boosted, if not actually created, by the dramatic changes in consumer behaviour.

Around 17 per cent of adults who create and upload videos receive revenue or gifts in return and thousands of young children yearn to become YouTube stars and maybe even make a career out of it one day.

The report barely mentions broadcast television, although by implication the news must be very bad.

The fact that “one in three now watch online video more than traditional TV” suggests a viewing revolution deep enough to make the most optimistic TV executive splutter over their Sancerre.

What does all of this mean? Has a profound change in consumer viewing habits and behaviour occurred that will persist long after July 4th and what impact will that have on existing media?

One thing that can be safely predicted is the incidence of virtual drinks on Zoom – even if the drinks were anything but virtual - will not long survive the day when the majority feel it is possible to visit pubs and restaurants safely.

Stories will still be read to grandchildren via Zoom but only if families are separated by distances too great to meet regularly in real life.

Many people will slowly drift back to offices, although working from home will become both more common and more accepted.

The virtually edited newspaper controlled by a small central hub of senior executives may not only become the norm but an essential ingredient for survival.

Face-to-face business meetings will not disappear but there will be a lot more Zooming in future.

Certainly the days of a banker flying from London to Bangkok for a one hour meeting at the airport are over, and rightly so.

But where does traditional television in particular fit into this rather doom-laden, TikTok scenario?

Things are not quite as they seem and Ofcom could well be a bit more precise in the way they deploy the apparent use of opposites such as online video and traditional television.

Traditional television has long ceased to be merely traditional television in the sense of a limited number of channels broadcast from the top of hills.

Traditional or existing television is an integral part of online video with broadcaster on-demand services like iPlayer, ITV Hub and All4, and broadcasters contribute short-form material to YouTube.

More than 20 per cent, for example of broadcast TV viewing among 16 to 34 years olds is now on demand and therefore part of online video.

According to Thinkbox, the commercial television marketing organisation, viewing to broadcaster-produced video-on-demand services increased by 45 per cent during the lockdown.

There is of course a problem with the very different emanations from TikTok. At the obvious level amateur clips produced at home do not compete with professionally produced broadcast programming.

Except that in two obvious ways they do. One is in use of time in either watching or making such things and as a result are not available to watch more “traditional” fare.

The other is that more people might find they like having creative control over their own material, however modest their skills.

At the very least broadcasters must hope that the large upsurge in YouTube and TikTok activity will be partly curbed by a likely widespread return to schools and colleges in September and the resumption to something closer to pre-lockdown behaviour.

The other big issue is one of regulating what is in effect a new mass medium of communication.

The Ofcom report makes clear that the huge surge in use of video-sharing sites and apps has been accompanied by unease, with nine in 10 online adults expressing concerns about such sites.

As usual the issue is one of potential misuse, and there has been a large surge in adult fears about everything from young people being bullied or trolled online to watching harmful or offensive material, quite apart from receiving private messages from strangers and spending too much time online.

As always there is the vast gulf between strictly regulated media and the technology billionaires most reluctant to submit to formal regulation of any kind.

The good news is that Ofcom is preparing to take on new duties to regulate UK-based video-sharing platforms with a call this summer for evidence to guide their deliberations.

A lot will turn on what precisely “a UK-based video-sharing platform” is and the extent to which they will accept Ofcom regulation or decide to operate elsewhere.

Meanwhile, for the media the use of Zoom and comparable video-conferencing technology could provide a stream of revenue from international audiences to seminars and conferences for those less keen to travel to physical get-togethers because of fear of viruses or climate change.

For now all we can do is watch and wait to see how great – or small – the drift back to previous media and communication habits and behaviour turns out to be.

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01 Jul 2020 

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