How 2020 changed the way we watch TV

If you barely leave your house for an entire year and are paralyzed with fear but still trying to work, turns out that affects your viewing habits.

How 2020 changed the way we watch TV
[Photo: metamorworks/iStock]

It may be hard to believe now, but at the beginning of the year, the most interesting development happening on TV was Netflix’s pivot to trashy reality shows.


America fell head over heels for guilty pleasure series like Love Is Blind, The Circle, and Too Hot for TV, with no idea about the plot twist that reality had planned for us all just around the bend.

In the months since—which have seen unprecedented departures, such as late-night talk shows filming over Zoom—a lot of amazing new series premiered. End of the year lists are chockablock with dazzling new shows such as I May Destroy You, Ted Lasso, P-Valley, Mrs. America, and How To with John Wilson, all of which are well worth seeking out.

What’s more notable about the year in television, though, is the changes in how we watched TV in 2020. It turns out that if you barely leave your house for months on end, and are paralyzed with fear all the time but still trying to work, it affects your viewing habits.

Who would have ever suspected!

As the remainder of this dreadful year dwindles down, and we look forward to RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13, Dickinson season two, and Disney Plus’s first batch of Marvel shows, let’s take a look back at some of the ways we watched TV differently in 2020.


We got better at binge-watching whole networks

When Apple TV Plus premiered near the end of 2019, it was an entirely new phenomenon. Never before had a streaming service just . . . materialized, out of the ether, with so many new offerings to evaluate. By the time its shows like Defending Jacob and Ted Lasso broke out midway through 2020, though, and more people began to realize that Apple TV Plus is off to a promising start, many viewers had already absorbed the experience of wading through the sudden saturation of fresh content on both Quibi and HBO Max as well.

Audiences quickly found Quibi wanting, scuttling it down the path to extinction, but latched onto shows like Legendary and Haute Dog at HBO Max, paving the way for the streamer’s first bona-fide hit, The Flight Attendant. For better or worse, this was the year that audiences became experienced at sniffing out which new services justify their expensive existences.

We just said ‘no’ to aggressively okay shows

Not everybody will feel this way, but a scientific analysis of myself and some casually surveyed friends reveals that, as much extra viewing time as we had in the year of quarantine, we were unwilling to waste it. This was the year I decided to wash my hands of vaguely just-fine TV shows. I watched enough of Space Force to realize I was forcing myself to keep going, and I took a hasty U-turn out of HBO’s Avenue 5. Both shows hail from creators whose work I admire, and are stacked with overqualified supporting casts. Maybe they really get cooking right after the point where I tapped out. Why bother sticking around to find out, though? A pandemic is happening, and there are a million other things to watch.

We became completionists

With all the extra time at home, and a pop culture void from so many unreleased movies, it was a great year for becoming a completionist. In addition to rewatching comfort food shows throughout this super-gloomy year, I finally got to the end of The Americans, Veep, Silicon Valley, and a clutch of other series I’d lost track of over the years. I definitely wasn’t alone either. A lot of people used the quarantine to finally finish off, or start for the first time, their Golden Age of TV blind spots—especially The Sopranos.

We watched more shows on Instagram

The demand for fresh content from homebound viewers drove innovation. Suddenly, fresh TV started emerging from unexpected places—like Instagram.


Sure, Instagram Live has been a platform for years, but it had never hit critical mass as appointment television. At some point in the year, though, Swizz Beats and Timbaland’s Verzuz series became a weekly must-see for half a million viewers at a time, and Ziwe Fumodoh’s bracing, hilarious Thursday night interviews became among the best shows on TV.

We watched more shows everywhere, actually

Between high-profile internet shows like John Krisinski’s Some Good News and Josh Gad’s reunion series, as well as all the Zoom comedy, workouts, and museum exhibitions, no TV guide could contain all the viewing possibilities of 2020. Savvy seekers instead found that they could go on the hunt and eventually find whatever content they were craving.

Exploring new ways to watch things with friends

There is no replacement for hanging out with friends in person. Zoom chat sessions certainly scratch the itch, but there can be a cold formality to them, and too much cutting each other off. Luckily, as it turns out, watching shows and movies with friends over Zoom approximates the feel of a lazy hang. If you squint a little, it sort of seems like those friends are right there in the room with you—a feeling that’s been at a powerful premium throughout 2020.

First time for everything

Another way to feel like you’re watching something with friends is to live-tweet it, an activity nearly as old as Twitter itself. Due to intolerable levels of boredom, however, this past year seemed to find more people than ever announcing that they were about to watch a beloved movie or show for the first time ever—and then live-tweeting their thoughts. It was an easy way to stoke renewed interest in a classic with your friends and followers, and feel like you’re all watching something together.

Looking everywhere for monoculture

Perhaps the biggest change in how viewers watched TV in 2020, though, is that we anointed a new monoculture show every month or so. It usually takes time for a show to build up to the status of one that Everyone is Watching.


Not this year, though.

It started with Netflix’s Tiger King, an exploitative misery fest that benefitted massively from dropping on March 13, right when the shelter in place orders started rolling out. Next up was the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance, which became a weekly juggernaut that legions of viewers took in together. Throughout the rest of the year, other shows kept popping up that everyone watched, like The Queen’s Gambit or The Vow. Real-world FOMO quickly migrated to TV in the pandemic, and nobody wanted to miss out on the major show of the moment. Sure, that’s kind of always the case, but the feeling was more intense this year, and it seemed to seep in more often.

2020 was an unforgettable lesson in how much people value feeling connected to each other. Watching television has often been seen as a barrier to connection, the opposite of spending quality time, but throughout the pandemic it became a hub of shared humanity. Whether TV still gives us that same feeling once we’re free to roam about the world again, never forget that it was there for us when we most needed it.