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From 'My Octopus Teacher' to 'The Queen's Gambit,' This Was the Year of the Streamers
December 31, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 16 comments

And the prize for the best documentary of 2020 goes to – wait for it – The Crown.

Go ahead, laugh.

After what the world has been through this past year, laughs are in precious short supply. We grab them where we can find them.

Royal-watchers' hand-wringing over liberties taken with the facts in the fourth season of Netflix's eye-filling costume drama about the British royal family — coupled with Netflix's refusal to add a disclaimer — may not have been the biggest story of the year, but it pointed the way to an even bigger one.

The Queen will neither confirm nor deny that she even watches The Crown, let alone whether she thinks of it the way she thinks of France post-Brexit — something to be tolerated but, you know, after Agincourt, do we really have to?

It's worth reminding ourselves, though, that the bigger, largely-untold story of the past year is that, with COVID lockdowns and the Internet replacing the office water-cooler as the point of discussion about TV shows and TV, streaming services seized the conversation. And not just Netflix but Disney+, Amazon, HBO MAX, and Hulu, too.

Netflix is no longer an outlier. It's setting the rules for what gets talked about and when. The year began with Tiger King, remember, and ended with The Queen's Gambit.

For me, The Queen's Gambit was simply stunning, virtually flawless from beginning to end, and a pleasant surprise since I wasn't expecting much going in. (Netflix is peculiar when it comes to promoting its new programs; as site founder David Bianculli hinted at in his day's Best Bets from earlier in the month, Netflix's year-ending Death to 2020 (top), from Charlie Brooker, creator of Black Mirror, might just as well have been released in a witness protection program.)

Strong arguments can be made for My Octopus Teacher and this past season of Better Call Saul for Program of the Year, along with documentaries like Athlete AI Am GretaThe Social DilemmaThe Last DanceJeffrey Epstein: Filthy RichLast Chance UPandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak, and David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet — programs that not only held our attention but, in many respects, shaped and changed how we see the world.

For others, the past year has been all about The Mandalorian. Of the major streaming services, Disney + seemed as if it might be late to the party, despite a library of backlog titles entire generations have grown up on, but it premiered virtually the same day, in late October, that the second wave of COVID lockdowns barricaded many TV watchers inside their homes. The Mandalorian was always guaranteed an audience because of its association with the Star Wars films, but there was no guarantee it would actually be good.

Instead, The Mandalorian turned out to better than expected. It became the right show at the right time — something no amount of money lavished on special effects, board meetings at the studio level, and pre-planning with focus groups can guarantee.

Behind the scenes, the past year marked a tectonic shift in the viewing landscape. Streaming services already had traditional broadcasting on the run, even before COVID. Even the 5,000-channel cable universe and pay TV channels felt the effects. MediaPost reported the average number of TV channels received by US TV households dropped in 2019 to fewer than 180 from nearly 200 just a year earlier. There's no reason to think that trend slowed in 2020. In fact, thanks to COVID lockdowns, it may have accelerated.

This past weekend, the UK Sunday Observer reported some striking numbers. Households reportedly spent 40% of their waking hours watching TV during coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. The total number of subscribers to Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ alone is now double the number of consumers signed up to traditional pay TV providers in the UK.

US figures are harder to track down, but it's hard to imagine them that much different. As we've seen, COVID is a global pandemic and not limited to just one region or country.

The UK figures show that the number of subscribers to streaming services has surged 34% year-on-year. The number of subscribers has doubled in just three years.

Streaming services' relatively low monthly cost, compared to cable TV packages, has appealed to families looking to trim their household expenses, especially those families impacted economically by the pandemic.

The arrival of Disney+ cannot be underestimated. The name Disney is synonymous with family-friendly programming, and with children forced to spend more time at home thanks to school closures, Disney+ is proving to be a welcome distraction for harried, overworked parents.

There is talk that once vaccines put an end to COVID worries, viewers' habits will return to the way they were before, but not everyone is convinced. Viewers aren't buying just one or two streaming subscriptions; they're buying three or more.

Perhaps, one day in the not-too-distant-future, Netflix, or one of the other streaming services, will make a documentary series about how 2020, the Year of the Pandemic, changed TV as we know it.

Until then, enjoy My Octopus Teacher. And The Queen's Gambit. And, as the founder of this parish noted, Death to 2020.

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I took on My Octopus Teacher following watching the extremely active Black Panther A perfect palate cleanser. Gentle, informative. (perhaps a wee bit philosophical for my taste) I will make myself feel safer that it was South Africa, so I can still go in the water in CT!!
Jan 1, 2021   |  Reply
Alex S.
well ... South Africa is notorious for its great whites, so that's perfectly understandable. Still, CT may be getting them soon, too. One of the "side benefits" of climate change, no doubt. Glad you enjoyed Octopus Teacher though, to be fair, that's not wholly unexpected. It seems to have quite an effect on those who see it.
Jan 20, 2021
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