By Denise A. Valdez, Senior Reporter

MARCH is a distant memory now, the last time many of us did things that we would deem non-essential. But as the lockdown weeks stretched into months, keeping people trapped at home, the dividing line between things that were vital to survival and those that were merely nice to have began to blur. And it’s fair to say that somewhere along the way, online content creators cemented a place in the homebound routines of a population starved for entertainment and connection.

The first signs of this longing, apart from self-improvement projects like manic workouts or sourdough baking, had an element of escapism, embodied in Netflix watch lists. One indicator of the sheer dependence people developed for Netflix was the dwindling list of recommended shows as audiences with time on their hands watched everything in sight.

Undeniably, entertainment proved to be just as essential to people’s lives, in whatever form, as the world turned unrecognizable. In the early days of the lockdown, TikTok grew more popular, online concerts became a thing, and live streams were popping up left and right.

For creators of content distributed via traditional channels, the lockdown meant no shoots, no production activity and no new shows. TV had to resort to reruns during the quarantine until it could adapt with new shows and homebound presenters reaching out via videochat.

“Even when the restrictions were eased, new protocols needed to be adopted. Everything that we did on television had to adapt to the new normal,” Raz de la Torre, director of shows such as Maalaala Mo Kaya for ABS-CBN Corp., said in an Oct. 20 video call.

Some of the protocols are shorter shoot hours, a 10-person limit per scene, sets reconfigured for social distancing, a ban on dining scenes, and the need to obtain performers’ consent to stand closer than six feet, among others.

“Many of the things that we used to have the freedom to do were suddenly gone, and that has a creative impact,” Mr. De la Torre said.

While TV struggled to produce new shows, digital content creators were able to adjust with more ease.

“A lot of creators thrived during this time because they have been able to pivot easily. A lot of vloggers just film their lives, so they can easily make content from their homes. They don’t need expensive equipment,” Jako de Leon, YouTuber and executive producer of PaperbugTV, said in an Oct. 29 video call.

At the height of the lockdown, Filipinos spent 5.2 hours a day of non-work time online — the most in Southeast Asia, where the regional average was only 4.7 hours a day at the time, Bain & Company said in its e-Conomy SEA 2020 report prepared with Google and Temasek. After lockdown rules were relaxed somewhat, Filipinos spent 4.9 hours a day in front of screens, still the highest in the region, where the average is 4.2 hours.

“The market is more ready now, so if you want to be a creator, now is the best time to do it,” Carlo Ople, who maintains a sneaker review vlog and heads tech blog, said in an Oct. 22 video call.

Having started in digital content creation more than a decade ago, Mr. Ople said he has seen the industry change across various media over time: from blogging, photo sharing (see: Instagram), video blogging (vlogging), micro video blogging (see: TikTok), and now, live streams. The robust digital environment that took years for creators to build, the pandemic was able to develop in a matter of months.

“The internet was growing and internet usage was growing. But when the pandemic hit, the digitization of the Philippines in terms of market behavior shot up dramatically,” Mr. Ople said.

With people stuck at home, there was only one place for work, school, shopping, hanging out and entertainment. In other words, the past months were like an immersive training environment for understanding how digital platforms work. For a growing industry of digital content creators, this was a more than welcome development.

In January, the Creator and Influencer Council of the Philippines (CICP) was formed, gathering creators, influencers, and marketing professionals whose roles are intertwined with the industry.

Having recognized the usefulness of creators and influencers in brand-building, CICP’s founders thought it was high time to band together to strengthen the “influencer ecosystem.” Mr. De Leon and Mr. Ople are both board members of the organization.

“As they said, there are good things that have also happened during this pandemic, one of which is being able to bring the CICP to life,” Jim Guzman, president of CICP and social media head at Dentsu Aegis Network, said in an Oct. 29 video call.

One solid indication of the industry’s emerging centrality is how much bigger companies are willing to spend on digital creators. Ten years ago, Mr. Guzman said only about 5% of advertising budgets were allotted to digital. Now, this has shot up to about half the budget. “No one can deny the fact that the new celebrities are the internet stars,” he said.

Even Mr. De la Torre, the TV director, acknowledges the impact of digital content in advertising. “A lot of digital content, especially the ones that you see on YouTube, have monetization schemes that are actually very similar to a television structure… It’s still advertising-driven,” he said.

For this reason, some have found an online career to be a viable alternative to a day job. Mark Averilla, known digitally as Macoy Dubs, rose to online fame for creating Tagalog-dubbed videos. While holding on to a job at a creative agency, Mr. Averilla continues to attract new fans online, such as those following the “Aunt Julie” videos launched during the pandemic.

“Today, content creation is considered a passion and (a possible) source of income. As a matter of fact, a lot of millennials are considering leaving their full-time jobs just to be full-time content creators,” Mr. Averilla said in an Oct. 19 e-mail.

This is also one of the CICP’s goals. “Many are (creating content) because they want to entertain, to make people laugh, or to educate people… We’re here to help them continue that as a living, and not just something that they’re doing in the meantime,” Mr. De Leon said.

Mr. Ople, the sneaker vlogger, likened the appeal of online content to getting a “fix.” He said people watch TV and get sucked in for about 30 minutes, just to get a “kilig” fix, for instance. Online, a two-minute video can give a person just about the same feeling.

“The universal truths and benefits of storytelling will forever be there. What’s just happening is people can get that across multiple platforms now,” Mr. Ople said.

Mr. De la Torre, who’s been in the TV industry for more than a decade, said however that there are aspects of traditional narratives that cannot be replaced by digital. 

“You don’t give up how narratives should be told. The teleseryes, they’re supposed to mirror real life. So the way the scenes are written still has to mimic real life,” he said.

Similarly, Mr. De Leon said the two platforms will likely learn to co-exist, offering consumers more variety.

“We will still want to watch movies, we will still want to watch high-quality production stuff, we still want to see great shows and great writing. There are just more types of content now,” Mr. De Leon said.

Despite the challenges the pandemic imposed on the TV industry, digital creators agree that the mainstream platform is in no danger of dying out anytime soon. “It’s still the dominant platform that a lot of Filipinos look to, especially in areas wherein you don’t have robust and strong internet connection,” Mr. Ople said.

Mr. De la Torre also noted that getting featured on TV still gives digital creators a feeling of “legitimacy,” as it is acknowledged to have a wider reach than online.

“In many ways, you could see digital content creators as the ones who are more experimental, and therefore leading the way into treading new territory. But at the end of the day, it’s still popular mainstream platforms like television that dictate what will be palatable to a greater mass audience,” he said.

As for the future of digital, Mr. Ople said it may have to consolidate at some point. “In anything, you will always see the age of exploration and trial. That’s where people will go to a platform and try it out and experiment. And then you will start to see a consolidation — either some people will quit, or some people will band together. Some groups will form, and then you can see more structured, formal businesses out of that particular melting pot,” he said.