Understanding how our habits of cultural consumption changed during the UK's COVID-19 lockdown

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Insights from the six-week study

The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 and the UK’s period of lockdown has changed the way we experience cultural content - from film, to live music, and art exhibitions. Movement restrictions leading to more time in the home, the mental wellbeing consequences of social distancing and the huge economic uncertainties, disrupted the way that the public accessed digital content during the lockdown period. 

Monitoring these disruptions was critically important to understand the impact that the crisis has had on the Creative Industries, like film, TV, music, video games, publishing and theatre. These sectors generate billions of pounds of value added for the UK econom through physical engagement with consumers.

The PEC and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) commissioned AudienceNet to follow cultural consumption during lockdown over six weeks during April-May 2020, looking at people’s consumption of TV, music, film, e-books, video games and even filmed theatre performances and digital art. The study set out to understand how people’s habits changed when confined to the home, and to provide creative businesses and cultural institutions with a real-time understanding of consumer demand and needs for their content. This was in an aim to help the creative sector minimise negative consequences, such as increased infringement, and also to offer insight into new opportunities and ways of engaging with consumers during this period and post-lockdown.

Key insights and themes from the study
While consumption levels during lockdown increase for all, the class gap widens

When comparing behaviours pre and post lockdown, we saw large increases in people accessing digital content across all of the core categories. Film had the highest proportional increases across both streaming and downloading. 

Looking at this by socio-economic status shows that the increase in content consumption occurred at a slower rate for those classified as ‘working class’ opposed to ‘middle class’. This led to a widening of the gap in content consumption between the two groups (particularly for TV streaming) which was already present.

People’s likelihood to consume content also differed based on their COVID-19 related circumstances. Across all content categories, those who were working from home (either all the time or more than usual) were more likely to consume content than those who had stopped working (e.g. furloughed) or were working outside of the home. Those who were self isolating were generally the least likely to consume content.

A boost in content creation

Lockdown led to an increase in content creation for 4 in 10 (38 per cent), with 17 percent of this group taking it up for the first time. Throughout the study, approximately a quarter of respondents created and posted content online each week. 

In terms of who was creating the content, younger people (16-24 year olds) had a significantly higher increase in new content during the pandemic and were more frequent creators, while the highest proportion of first time content creators were from the 55+ group.

Continued dominance of streaming vs downloading in music, film and TV

Following a trend shown over the past five years, streaming was more common than downloading during lockdown for all three content categories we looked at (music, film and TV). In week one, nearly double the proportion of people streamed content than downloaded it. 

Across the weeks, interestingly, all three categories saw peaks in both streaming and downloading in week two. After this, there was a decrease in downloading, falling below the levels in week one for music and film. While streaming also declined post the peak, it was comparatively more stable. Younger age groups tended to be more engaged than other age groups in downloading and streaming.

Illegal vs legal access to content

We compared numbers of people who had used at least one illegal source in the last three months to access content pre-lockdown with those doing so during lockdown. Those consuming illegal content either remained consistent or decreased in most categories. Exceptions to this were video games and music downloading which both had increases. It’s important to note that this is the proportion of people using illegal means, rather than the amount downloaded illegally overall (which industry intelligence has suggested may be significantly higher). 

In terms of weekly consumption, downloading music generally had the highest proportion using illegal sources, while music streaming had the lowest. Many categories showed a similar pattern where the levels of infringement were highest in week one and then declined over the course of the study. The highest volume of content consumed in all categories was in the first week of the survey, after which it tended to decline. For some categories, this was also the peak in terms of the volume of illegal content accessed. More specifically, the illegal volume tended to decline from week two onwards.

An uptake in newer forms of cultural content in early weeks

In the study we also looked at non-traditional cultural activities such as playing multiplayer video games, watching esports or watching live streams, watching filmed performances of theatre, concerts or dance online, and looking at art online. 

About four in ten had ever played online multiplayer video games before the pandemic and roughly three in ten had ever watched esports or live streams of people playing video games. Those who played games or watched people playing them were more likely to be male and younger (aged 16-34). These video game enthusiasts were consistent in their levels of consumption across the six weeks of the study.

Approximately half of respondents had ever watched filmed performances or looked at art online in week one, with around a fifth of those having started engaging with each activity since the pandemic. While weekly engagement with the activities was slightly higher earlier on in the study, it generally sustained.

Physical purchasing

At the start of the study, physical products such as CDs/vinyl and DVDs/Blu-Rays was the least common method of access by some way. However, lockdown appears to have encouraged more people to make physical purchases. While this method remained somewhat behind other means of access, there was a notable uplift for all categories. 

For books, magazines and audiobooks, physical purchasing became as common as (and at times more common than) digital consumption. Encouragingly for retail in the creative sector, the increase in physical purchases was largely driven by younger age groups.

About the study

The PEC and the IPO commissioned AudienceNet to design and conduct a weekly nationally representative survey of 1000+ consumers aged 16+ on how they engage with digital cultural content in the home. Six weeks of data were collected across six consecutive weeks (9th April to 24th May 2020), with further data collection in July, August and September 2020. As well as asking many questions drawn from the IPO's Online Copyright Infringement (OCI) Tracker, conducted on nine occasions since 2010, enabling some historical comparisons, the survey asks about time spent engaging with different content categories and about impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including wellbeing. The study builds on research in the PEC's area of work in Intellectual Property, Business Models, Access to Finance and Content Regulation, led by PEC researchers from the University of Glasgow. 

We were unfortunately unable to include radio or podcasts in the study as there were no questions about these content categories in the OCI Tracker Survey that it was based on. We have gathered data about podcasts and radio from week 6 of the study, which features at the end of the week 6 report. We are unable to compare this to previous years, however we hope it is still useful for anyone interested in radio and podcast consumption.

Find out more in the full report, and catch up on the week-to-week insights from week oneweek twoweek threeweek fourweek five and week six. Learn more about the study in the blog from Hasan Bakhshi, Director of the PEC.


Published 5th June 2020

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

Siddharth Bhogra K3Kdc5 Mqyyk Unsplash 2