When it comes to content, what does it mean – and what does it take – to be popular?

In the past, popular content was monocultural. It was the most watched, the most talked-about, and the most critically acclaimed – factors that were often in harmony with one another. But times, and the ways audiences consume content, have changed. In a world where media consumption takes place across formats, platforms, and devices, there’s no longer a clear consensus on what it is to be popular. In the absence of monoculture, we still have an urgent need to connect with others, as well as a greater desire for instant gratification, driven by the immediacy and fragmentation that defines today’s media ecosystem. As a result, what it means to be “popular” has evolved.

To understand what drives popularity in TV shows and movies for our audiences today, we recently conducted a global, multi-methodology study that involved a quantitative survey across six markets (Australia, France, Mexico, South Korea, UK, and US), as well as qualitative research that included expert interviews, consumer journals, interviews, and semiotics work.

This project revealed an updated formula for how audiences think about and define popular content today. And while some of the familiar building blocks of popularity remain the same, there are new factors as well, as “popularity” becomes more subjective.

These are the five key elements of popular content today:

Being the talk of the town. A third of audiences (33%) say that content is popular if people are talking about it the most. While what’s most talked about does not always equate to what’s most watched, it does the give the sense that a piece of content is well-known and viral, and makes us feel like we’re a part of something larger than ourselves.

Having longevity. One in three respondents (29%) said popular content should have longevity. This can happen through familiar or culturally significant characters, comedic or ironic portrayals of culture with multigenerational appeal, or by reinforcing existing beliefs or myths.

Providing an escape. In other research, we have found escapism to be a core need state for viewers today, contributing significantly to popularity. One in three respondents (28%) believe popular content should help people escape their everyday world. This type of content reinforces viewers’ personal values, allowing them to relax into something familiar. It’s accessible, reflecting our culture, feelings, and traditions. Additionally, this content can be unchallenging in a comforting way – accepting the world as imperfect yet maintaining a sense of optimism.

Promoting new ways of thinking. A fifth of viewers (20%) want content that challenges their views, teaches them something new, or broadens their personal experience. This can mean allowing growth through niche interests or experiences, giving a behind-the-scenes view of an interest that’s dominant in the culture, or offering up narratives that are complex and raw to a degree that’s hard to share with others.

Reflecting culture today. And finally, 17% of viewers want to feel seen in the content they watch. This can mean content that mirrors the “now” and offers a new understanding of society. It celebrates how far we’ve come as a society and illustrates how far there is to go, delving into the worlds of characters with fringe identities or addressing challenging topics with humor.

The way we consume popular content has evolved, so the way audiences think about and define it has broadened. To be considered popular today, content must generate buzz, have longevity, help viewers escape their everyday lives, open them to new ideas, or reflect the world in a way that feels current and true.