The Legacy of 2020 on Media Habits: The Second Screen

It’s been two years since the start of the pandemic, but we continue to see the story of the second screen unfold


While 2020 was a year largely defined by staying at home, mechanisms through which individuals could still find connections with others or an escape from the realities of life in a pandemic took on a new premium. Suddenly, those shows or movies that we heard about from a colleague or family member that were supposedly very good were finding themselves at the top of our list of priorities.

The entertainment industry rose to the occasion and benefited from this shift. A key indicator of just how deeply consumers were diving into the world of OTT is exemplified by the somewhat counter-intuitive battering in the market that Netflix was subjected to on the back of subscription slowdowns in 2021 from an all-time high in 2020.

And yet, despite this watershed moment for OTT, the lightning rod for media attention around home entertainment during the pandemic was gaming. Dozens of news stories and various insights pieces were on how interactions with gaming were reaching all-time highs. The reaction to these shifts has ranged from surprise to incredulity, despite the near-synonymous trends with OTT.

This disproportionate focus on how “unusual” or “novel” this trend was for gaming relative to OTT is almost certainly a telltale sign of the ongoing blind spot that marketers and business decision-makers have about the ubiquity of gaming. This, in and of itself, is notable. However, this contrast is particularly stark when considering the more nuanced take—these adoption patterns portend to an evolution of oft-cited consumer behavior: second screening.

The notable jump in gaming tells a bigger story

Though technology tends to move quite quickly, as a rule, human behaviors do not. The now-seemingly natural behavior of “watching” a primary screen while browsing a “second” (often handheld) screen is one hard-coded into our viewing behaviors over the years by merit of the increased ubiquity of smartphones and engaging content therein (with social media being the consistent reference point).

That said, the content through which we view this technology-enabled behavior is, in some respects, quite a bit more mutable. In other words, the tendency to engage with our phones while watching TV was the big shift—what we’re actually watching on our TVs and interacting with on our phones is a much smaller step-change.

And the second screen story continues to evolve

In a year of hyper-consumption of home media, second screening was indeed alive and well, but the trends in both OTT and gaming give reason to believe how the second screen is shifting: If second screening has largely been heretofore identified as a dichotomy between linear broadcast on the TV and social media on the phone, the circumstances of 2020 have potentially fostered a “V2” of this phenomenon for a newer generation where it’s OTT on the TV and gaming on the phone.

Recent research which utilized media diaries and in-depth interviews of consumers has demonstrated that the spike of gaming and OTT behaviors are not consumers delving into new behaviors but merely revisiting them. Specifically, 77% of respondents noted that they had “revisited” OTT over the past eight months, while a nearly identical (76%) proportion of respondents said the same for gaming. Much of the speculation that gaming, in particular, was minting new fans wasn’t quite accurate—consumers were merely returning to it.

The reasons for re-discovery amongst these platforms were nearly identical between OTT and gaming: feelings of “calm,” “happiness,” and “entertaining” were highest for OTT and gaming, which were similarly tied for the highest platforms being attributed to “escaping reality” relative to platforms like social, music streaming, etc. Moreover, game playing has a very high correlation with OTT for younger respondents, but very low with linear TV, potentially indicating generational effects in how second screening is evolving.

The net effect is that the circumstances of 2020 have caused innumerable shifts in consumer behaviors—some potentially temporary, others more long-standing. Many of the truisms we attach to digital media behaviors have almost certainly been irrevocably altered—not entirely unlike the “surprise” pop in gaming behaviors over 2020. The question becomes whether business decision-makers will continue to have a blindspot on emerging platforms that are not only becoming more mainstream but potentially supplanting the legacy platforms.