The rise and rise of real-life content reveals our newest desires
If a single image could capture the current state of the entertainment industry, it would be Jimmy Fallon’s makeshift crayon show sign… or rather, his daughter’s crayon show sign.
While we’re sheltered in place, entertainment is adapting. As SNL produced an entire show from home, the hottest sets and concerts are beamed out of kitchens and bedrooms via iPhones. These homemade videos with lo-fi aesthetics are radiating authentic appeal.
But this trend of radically transparent content has been bubbling beneath the surface long before COVID-19 was mentioned on a single broadcast.
When COPS debuted in 1989, the glass between the characters on TV and home viewers shattered. We were the stars… well, not all of us. Shaky hand-held footage made no difference in the content’s value. In fact, it made it all the more real and gripping.
Fast forward to the debut of YouTube, reality TV evolved further. With the ability to ‘broadcast yourself’ everyone became the talent, directors, editors and marketers of their own shows and channels. We also became the esteemed critics of all this new work. We were reality TV.
But while legacy reality TV like The Bachelor continues to thrive today, we’ve come to quietly accept the seeded drama and producer inference — not dissimilar to the kayfabe of WWE. We’re in on it. The suspension of disbelief just isn’t hitting the same. The real isn’t real enough. We want the raw, unscripted and absolute. And there’s plenty of that online.
The approximated cumulative length of all 6.5M IMDb.com titles is currently uploaded to YouTube every month. That’s 500 hours of content uploaded a minute. And five billion hours of that content is consumed a day. Now stuck at home, traffic to YouTube and downloads of TikTok have seen significant lifts according to Google search data. There’s comfort in watching the others more like us.
Meanwhile, broadcast television networks experienced a 20% decline in primetime viewers since 2014 — and that’s not just because of on-demand. Individual primetime shows are also experiencing declines across mediums. As for film, per capita movie theater admissions across U.S. and Canada have been in free fall since 2002. Moviegoers are seeing the least number of films since 1965. In the early 2000s, 28% of Americans made it to more than 12 films a year. Today, that rate is only 12%. And the pandemic will not help these numbers.
Comparing Hollywood with YouTube is futile though as it’s apples to oranges. After all, both can exist simultaneously. If anything, they can also overlap. Will Smith’s and Jack Black’s vlogs are proof.
The path worth exploring, however, is why this homemade, lo-fi content is so engaging. What is it about seeing Fallon without a tie joke with his dog at home?
Real-life, real-people entertainment span genres, and in surveying them all, we can come to realize how omnipresent and intense our crave for intimacy is. We demand the transparent. The more real stakes, the better. This trend isn’t new.
Gender reveal, proposal, prom-posal and military homecoming videos allow billions to peer into the lives of others and experience raw emotions which Hollywood can’t top. Watching a young girl get surprised by her dad in uniform was once a private moment, but this unparalleled warmth is now available with anyone with internet connection. These slices of closeness can also be trivial. Shopping hauls, travel vlogs and wisdom teeth removals, provide more authenticity than those with budgets can compete with. Live streams of studying, eating and even sleeping grant access that doesn’t get more candid.
The allure and pleasure of the real also plays out on the darker side of reality. More extreme than true crime, content around natural disasters, car and airplane crashes, mass shootings and even “haunted house” torture attract online viewership that would make any executive producer shriek. We know Saw and The Blair Witch Project are fake. There’s nothing scarier than reality.
Taboo but perhaps most symbolic of this movement is what’s happening in porn. In 2019, “Amateur” was Pornhub’s top gaining category as views increased by 108% compared to the previous year. What television and film industries are experiencing, porn is as well: nothing is more captivating than the real lives and sex of everyday people. New cam platforms developed for these amateurs are also swelling in part to quarantine. In just March 2020, CamSoda, ManyVids and IsMyGirl all witnessed significant increases in performer sign up and traffic. OnlyFans alone reported 3.7 million new sign-ups with 60,000 of them being new creators. Why watch set-porn when you can have a real model send you personalized videos?
With much of legacy production on pause, expect homemade content to further establish itself in our entertainment landscape. But as some talkshow hosts attempt to emulate their traditional desk and monitors, there’s a lesson to be learned from Fallon and his tent.
There is collective social desire to push ourselves to the spiritual extreme. The demand and normalization of this realer than real content speaks beyond the business of media and to our psyches. What does it say that we’re escaping our own realities to entertain ourselves with each others’? The commercialization of real-life is here. So, are you the producer or viewer?