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Our idea of leisure has transformed

I don’t know if people at large have realised how three developments in the second half of this decade have transformed our idea of leisure.

And there are more transformations to come in the decade ahead. The first is the rise of the Smartphone. We know how political parties send fake news on WhatsApp to Smartphone users and the consequences this has for law and order, voting patterns, etc.

 

 

But, in my experience, the primary attraction of Smartphones is that they allow users to access free entertainment through YouTube and other apps. Nearly everywhere I go, I see first-generation mobile phone users accessing entertainment (TV shows, film song sequences, etc.) through their phones.

 

   The second is the rise of streaming channels. There was a time when we would come home from work, turn on the TV and watch what the networks were showing. Consumers of English TV were often unwilling to make the commitment to regular entertainment viewing. So they watched news TV, surfing channels at random or spent a few minutes on a lifestyle channel before going on to something else.

 

   The streaming services have changed all that. Between Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime, there is always something on. You never have to worry about missing a show and never have to be concerned about keeping up with the plot of a serial. If you missed it on Star World, you can catch up on Hotstar. And the range of movies and shows on Netflix and Amazon is so massive what you can watch something new every night and never run out of options.

 

   The third development is the growth of food delivery services. Often, in the old days, you wanted to go out for a movie and catch dinner afterwards. Now, you can watch a movie on Netflix, order food from your favourite restaurant and stay at home. It is a much cheaper option and if you have had a long day at work, then it is the more attractive alternative.

 

   I am not sure if we see it all clearly yet but I am willing to bet that these three developments will transform television and food and restaurants in the first few years of the new decade.

 

   First of all, they will mark the beginning of the demise of network television. Who would want to watch TV with its set schedules when you can watch things on demand whenever you like? The big networks are concerned: viewing figures are certain to keep dropping and advertising is moving away already. Some, like Star, have set up successful streaming services of their own (Hotstar) and these may well flourish but it is downhill for the networks for now on.

 

   English television will be the worst affected. Nobody needs to stay in to watch an American or British show when the streaming service option exists. They have already stayed at home and watched say, Game of Thrones or Succession or The Morning Show on a streaming service. The change is clear and visible.

 

   Viewers don’t even need to keep dipping into the lifestyle channels and their range of endless repeats of cheap Australian programming. The best lifestyle shows and the superior food shows (Ugly Delicious, Chef’s Table, etc.) are already available on demand on streaming services and because they were made for streaming, won’t ever get on to network TV channels.

 

   News TV is in deep trouble. Every channel has started slashing budgets. Nobody has the money to send reporters out to cover the news or to maintain bureaus in major cities any longer. It is all cheaply produced debate shows where people shout at each other without knowing what the facts are. (How could they? TV longer covers them.)

 

"At present some restaurants are thrilled by the growth of the food delivery market because it offers them a new source of revenue."

   For a long time, English news TV survived on the basis of people who couldn’t bring themselves to watch Star Plus or Zee. This audience found English news TV a better option.

 

   But these viewers are now so fed up with the deteriorating quality of news TV that they don’t even bother to switch on their Tata Sky boxes any longer. They go straight to Netflix or Amazon.

 

   Yes, people will watch news TV when a major event is unfolding. But they will no longer tune in every night to watch the shouting matches.

 

   There is a chicken-and-egg situation here. Many TV professionals accept that the core English audiences is moving on. As the total English universe is tiny anyway, English channels can easily replace the departing viewers with audiences drawn from the larger Hindi news TV universe. That’s why you see Hindi shows on English news TV and that is why so many English news anchors are now speaking more and more Hindi on their shows.

 

   The English channels will tell you --- off the record --- that the shouting goes down well with the new audience (Hindi news TV has always been more boisterous than English news TV) and is cheap and easy to produce. You can get unknown guests on your shows and, as long as they shout a lot, viewers don’t care.

 

   Which leads us to the future of viewership on Hindi news TV in the medium term. Will it hold up? Or will the smartphone revolution mean that people will consume their news in little bites on their phones from a multiplicity of sources, including WhatsApp?

 

   My guess is that this is inevitable. Just as the slump in English language newspaper readership and influence has preceded the slump in language papers. Hindi (and Indian language) news TV will last longer than English news TV.

 

   But the slump is on its way.

 

   That takes us to the third component of the leisure revolution: food delivery.

 

   At present some restaurants are thrilled by the growth of the food delivery market because it offers them a new source of revenue. And the profits are greater too. The price of a dish at a restaurant includes the cost of real estate, the air conditioning, staff salaries etc. But when you send a dish out at roughly the same prices as you charge in the restaurant, you don’t incur many of those costs. So your net profit increases.

 

   But this is a short sighted view. Look at the kind of food that gets ordered from delivery services. Mostly, it is staples like Punjabi-Chinese, biryani or junk sushi. None of these are dishes that need any special expertise in preparing. (The biryani, for instance, is often sold by the kilo.) The chef at a delivery operation need not be more skilled than the guy who flips burgers at McDonald’s.

 

   It is easy to see what will happen next. The restaurant is the least important part of the delivery equation. All that the delivery services need are kitchens. And these are easy to set up outside restaurants. Already people are setting up so-called cloud kitchens only for delivery purposes.

 

   Many restaurateurs don’t realise this but the rise of the delivery services is not good news for restaurants. Of course people will still go out—there is nothing to beat the full restaurant experience. But for many people, it is an acceptable alternative to sit at home, watch Netflix and order in a biryani. It is certainly much cheaper.

 

   I think the future is now clearly mapped. The consumption of entertainment on Smartphones. The rise of streaming services. The crisis in network television. The shake-out in news TV (first English and then Indian language).The growth in delivery services. The growth in delivery-only kitchens. And a battle for restaurants to merely survive.

 

   There will still be leisure. But not as we know it.

 


 

Posted On: 02 Jan 2020 11:28 AM
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