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Bloom: Fans Have Changed and Streaming Services Must Adapt Quickly

Kevin Costner as John Dutton in Paramount Network's "Yellowstone"
(Image credit: Paramount Network)

The experience of being a fanatic has gone through some big changes the past three years, a new study suggests, with even bigger implications for the ways media companies take care of their most devoted and loyal audiences. 

David Bloom

(Image credit: David Bloom)

The study comes from Fandom, launched by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and home to 250,000 wiki sites for some 300 million monthly visitors interested in a bewildering array of favorite characters, series, movies, games, toys and more. The annual report is in its third year, giving a nice longitudinal look at how fans showed their “stan” before, during, and now sort-of after the pandemic. 

Also read: Appointment TV Making a Comeback, According to Fandom

“Things have changed more in a year than they have in 20,” said Fandom Chief Marketing Officer Stephanie Fried, who added that “2020 was exploration and breadth, 2021 was more about depth."

If 2020 was about having lots of spare time to sample a wide range of potentially binge-able franchises, 2021 has been a year of focus, as spare time became scarcer amid the return of many to school or workplaces after months of lockdown and #WFH. 

“Last year, fans were in a very weird place,” said Anthony Iaffaldano, Fandom’s VP of sales marketing and insights. “The reasons for people to dig into content then had little to do with the content. That’s one reason Tiger King was big last year and barely a blip this year.”

This year, people seem to want more substance to their absorption than going deeper on a mullet head with a feline fixation. 

Rather than continuing to sample widely and in shallow fashion, people spent 2021 dialing deeper on the favorites they’d discovered the previous year. 

“Where do you go deep and how do you go deep?” Fried said. “Right now, all of (the media companies and their shows) need to go deep to take advantage of what people are looking for.”

One outcome particularly visible in the expanding streaming universe: a rise in appointment viewing, watching something as soon as it’s available. That throwback to ancient TV viewing practice is up a third in a year, according to the report. 

“We had so much content for so long and nothing new was coming out,” Fried said. “Now, all of a sudden, there are second seasons of the things we fell in love with. We’ve figured out the things we care about most. I think that's why the tune-in happens.”

For a huge hit such as Apple’s Ted Lasso, traffic on the show’s Fandom pages reliably spiked 25% as each episode debuted. 

“One reason they’re doing that is to avoid spoilers,” Iaffaldano said. “People are wanting to be in the know on their favorite franchises. People are excited after having a year of not having enough to talk about. We’ll probably see some leveling out of that over time. But it’s become more about sitting down to watch the show, and participating in the community afterwards.” 

That suggests companies should create more shoulder content, background resources, spinoff material and the like, and make it available around each week’s release of a new episode, to further build engagement and conversation. 

Particularly ardent are book fans, Iaffaldano said, as evidenced by the explosion in interest in Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan’s 14-book fantasy series that Amazon Prime has translated at great expense into one of streaming’s most popular series. 

Wheel of Time went to the No. 2 trending community overnight,” after it debuted on Amazon Prime, Iaffaldano said. “We work with millions of people who are admins in these communities, who are really passionate.The most passionate are the people who are book (wiki) editors.”

The challenge for media companies is how to activate those hard-core fans when translating a franchise to screen. That’s been difficult for decades, but given fan expectations these days, it may be more complex than ever. Fans want more ways to connect, more background to explore, more inside information 

It’s one reason HBO Max/HBO launched podcast series about its biggest shows, and advertises them alongside each week’s episode. It’s why Netflix launched a game division and has been touring an in-person immersive experience on nascent zombie franchise Army of the Dead.

“The time spent with entertainment and gaming was down 10% this year,” Iaffaldano said. “But the time they spent was on things that were among the biggest parts of their identity: ‘It’s not just a show I watch. It’s part of my identity and I’m going to spend time, money and energy on it.’” 

The average Fandom user subscribes to four streaming services, and may add more. 

“It doesn’t seem that people’s appetite to pay for new services is quite at its peak yet,” Iaffaldano said. “There’s still opportunity for growth in that area. In a time when people have less disposable cash, they’re spending more on their entertainment favorites.” 

On the flip side – with both positive and negative implications for AVOD and FAST services – fans are much less likely this year to spend 20 minutes noodling around looking for something to watch. And they’re 49% less likely to leave the TV playing in the background as company. 

Many would love to express their fandom at in-person events – think San Diego Comic-Con, VidCon, anime conventions, esports contests and the like – but the pandemic remains a big concern. 

“Though in-person is really tenuous, they miss the camaraderie and buzz,” Iaffaldano said. “People want to be in person, but they’ve found a role for these hybrid (virtual and in-person) events to connect online.” 

That’s a big lesson for both media companies and live-event operators. Basically, ensure you have a substantive and technically competent online event, especially because online attendees are more likely to be superfans, Iaffaldano said.

Fandom’s fastest-growing existing TV communities this year surrounds Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, whose community jumped almost 7,200% in 2021 as seemingly the rest of the world discovered the contemporary Western series. 

Yellowstone, the year’s most popular cable series, no doubt got boosts from several directions well beyond its Paramount perch, which is mostly known for running lots of reruns of Yellowstone.

But this year the Yellowstone world got a lot bigger. As the show’s fourth season debuted on Paramount Network, its first three seasons streamed on Comcast’s Peacock, helping it find fans beyond ViacomCBS outlets. 

The show likely got a further boost when ViacomCBS commissioned multiple related projects from show creator Taylor Sheridan. The first of those projects just hit Paramount Plus, including urban crime thriller Mayor of Kingstown and soon-to-launch origin story 1883.

The real key: if you have a hit on one platform or outlet, maybe you don’t keep it hermetically sealed under your own corporate umbrella. Licensing older episodes to someone else’s service has been hugely profitable for beloved franchises such as Lionsgate’s Schitt’s Creek, which ventured onto Netflix with back seasons and exploded to a final-season weekly audience on Pop that topped 1 million viewers. The show also stormed to a near-sweep of comedy Emmy awards in 2020.  

The Fandom report suggests that there’s still lots to be learned as companies build a playbook for the new streaming era. As fans change their behaviors, services will have to adapt too. ■

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.