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Medics wearing protective suits interact with each other outside an isolation ward, set up in view of coronavirus pandemic, at Aluva Government General Hospital in Kochi. (PTI)
Medics wearing protective suits interact with each other outside an isolation ward, set up in view of coronavirus pandemic, at Aluva Government General Hospital in Kochi. (PTI)

Opinion | This is no time for entertainment, we hear, but then...

Though tough times do turn people toward products of utility value, the consumption of stuff produced by entertainers has no clear link with the state of the economy, perhaps because people need to feel better

Movie theatres are currently empty. Well, they have to be. They have been ordered to be shut down in most states of India. Movie production has been put on hold across India by film associations. How long these shutdowns will be in play is difficult to estimate, but let’s just say that it is unlikely to be a matter of days. It will probably be weeks together, and that too if Indians behave themselves and follow instructions and advice given by newspapers like this one, rather than, say, advice received on social media.

There is a perception that spending on entertainment is a “luxury" and hence is a part of the discretionary spending of an individual or a family. Given this perception, many may expect that, in an economic downturn (I’m not using the R-word as I don’t want to tempt fate), the first thing we sacrifice are “non-essentials"—like entertainment. Given that the Indian economy is likely to be significantly impacted by the global slowdown caused by Covid-19, many would estimate that people, many of whom have lost either their pay or their job on this account, are less likely to spend on entertainment and more on things of utility value now. People would want food and toilet paper (sic), not filmed entertainment.

This perception, as I see it, is wrong.

Over the past decade, the pattern of growth of the Indian media and entertainment (M&E) industry has had no link to the Indian economy. In some years, the difference between economic growth and M&E industry growth was as little as 10%, and in some years, the latter’s growth outperformed India’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth by over 100%. There have been times when the economy has surged but the M&E industry has not, and vice versa. So, linking people’s content consumption to the state of the economy would not be appropriate. The underlying hypothesis behind this delinking is that content consumption is not a luxury, but a necessity.

There are only two industries in the history of the world that have never shown a negative growth rate year-on-year on a global aggregate basis. The first is healthcare, the second is M&E. In economic downturn, health crises, even in war, the M&E industry and its key product—content —always grows.

So, why is content as important for humanity as healthcare is?

A cursory glance from a high vantage point at any Mumbai slum will show you satellite TV dishes mounted on more than 75% of the houses there. Even if we assume that most of them are gifts from a local politician, the question still remains: Why? Why would providing a family access to TV content earn such a politician their votes?

Because, just like healthcare serves and nourishes the body, content serves and nourishes the mind, making us “feel". In most cases, it makes people feel better. Healthcare makes the body better, while content does the same for the mind. Work by Nobel-winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, as well as past data available on the Great Depression nine decades ago, speaks of why the poor need entertainment and why films did well in the West during the 1930s. Turns out, people wanted to fill their lives with hope. Hence, people will seek out and consume content, come what may. So while Covid-19 will reduce their large-screen content consumption, it is likely to boost their small- and mini-screen consumption. Restrictions imposed on account of Covid-19 on theatrical movie-watching and eating out would leave a decent amount of money in the pocket of the average content consumer. It would be highly probable that this person spends some of that “saving" on online subscriptions and the like.

Given that our subscription rates are really low, I would not be surprised to see a jump in the subscription numbers of online platforms. A family of four often ends up spending 2,000 for a single movie outing at a multiplex. Now, for the cost of two movie outings they could subscribe to, say, Amazon and Hotstar and Zee5 and Alt Balaji and Sun Nxt for a whole year. Why wouldn’t they? Especially since they are sitting at home and finally have the time to consume all the content that’s been created for these platforms.

In my view, satellite TV, user-generated content and social media content consumption will undergo a massive increase, especially since these require nearly no additional expense. Of these, the big increase would be in the user-generated content apps ecosystem. Home-locked people are more likely to make TikTok and IGTV videos. There are already multiple user-made versions of the “Corona Go" video, which originally featured an Indian Member of Parliament, that have since gone viral (it sure feels odd to use this word now).

Content is too integral a part of our lives. So much so that not just content consumption, but its creation too is entertainment now. While there will depressed incomes and a possible utilitarian pull on people’s finances in the near term, both now and in the future, entertainment content consumption will never reduce.

It never has. It never will.

Chaitanya Chinchlikar is vice president at Whistling Woods International

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