TV

TV's biggest cliffhanger: Will my show return on schedule?


Restarting the huge and varied television industry after an unprecedented coronavirus-related shutdown doesn’t follow a one-size-fits-all formula.

Much has changed on TV since production was halted in mid-March. News programs have continued with guests and sometimes anchors broadcasting from home. Late-night comedy shows and reality singing competitions also have resumed from remote locations. Ratings for many shows have risen, with so many people staying at home.

When it comes to scripted programming – the backbone of entertainment TV – networks and streaming services have been leaning on ready-to-go filmed shows and easier-to-build specials to make up for the lack of new production. Going forward, that supply will diminish, although TV executives say we won’t run out of new shows anytime soon.

“We’re pretty far ahead, so we don’t see any disruption in our output over the next few months,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told CNN in late March, referring to the streaming service’s large supply of original programming. “You know, maybe later in the year, if this progresses long, you’ll start feeling some of that as the physical production is not operating.”

The shutdown already wiped out pilot season, when episodes of prospective replacement series are filmed, and the mid-May advertising upfronts, when the coming season’s primetime schedules and launch dates are announced. Some networks still haven’t announced plans to roll out episodes of new and returning series. 

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The Emmy Awards’ planned Sept. 20 ceremony hasn’t been delayed yet, but entry, voting and nomination deadlines have been pushed back.

However, the bigger question looms: When can TV restart production without social distancing? Executives can estimate and make plans, but they just don’t know when it will be safe to begin filming again – or when governments will allow it. Although Los Angeles, where so much production takes place, is slowly reopening businesses, officials have said some stay-at-home restrictions could extend past July.

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Tyler Perry has the most ambitious production plan, scheduling “Sistas” to start work July 8 and “The Oval” on July 28, with plans to test and sequester cast and crew at his massive Atlanta studio.

CW hedged against delays by pushing its fall season launch of big shows to January, but network chairman Mark Pedowitz likely speaks for many network and studio chiefs when he says, “Certainty is a hard thing in this world right now.”

He’s hopeful that filming can start in late summer or early fall, as the network’s plans rely on production resuming by September.

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Concern for employees’ financial and physical well-being are part of the planning process, executives say. Netflix in March announced creation of a $100 million fund to help entertainment workers affected by the pandemic, while networks and studios are trying to determine the best way to restart productions safely.

“One big thing we’re working on now is to figure out, what is the protocol to get things back up and going? How can we do that with a real assurance of safety?” says Kevin Reilly, president of cable networks TBS, TNT and TruTV, and chief content officer for upcoming streaming service HBO Max.

With production halted, broadcast networks, which have nightly primetime schedules to fill, have been holding back shows with fully produced seasons to provide new programming for the next few months.

Fox, for example, delayed the spring premieres of “Filthy Rich” and “Next” to make them cornerstones of a fall lineup. 

Networks also are acquiring shows that have aired internationally or on streaming services to beef up original programming options. CW picked up “Tell Me a Story” from CBS All Access, a corporate cousin,  and Fox will offer “L.A.’s Finest,” a “Bad Boys” spinoff previously available only to Spectrum cable subscribers.

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Improvisation will likely play a role going forward, following the examples of programs that found ways to finish new episodes after filming stopped. CBS’ “All Rise” ingeniously fashioned a season finale by framing the episode as a trial via videoconference with cast members performing from home, while NBC’s “The Blacklist” filled in an episode’s unfilmed scenes with graphic-novel-style animation.

Experimentation goes on behind the scenes, too. Sarandos applauded a virtual table read for Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” as cast read an episodic script remotely via online connection rather than together in the same room.

Streaming services, which have enjoyed a bump in viewership with so many people stuck at home, have relied on libraries of original series and past hits. However, the pandemic may not be the best time to launch a new service. Short-form programming service Quibi hasn’t fared well since starting in April, although some of its problems may not be related to COVID-19.

Whether the pandemic is boon or curse for a new service may become clearer with HBO Max, the new Warner Bros. streaming service that’s going forward with its May 27 launch. It’s had to adjust, too, as the taping of a much-awaited “Friends” cast reunion, designed to draw subscribers at kickoff, had to be postponed because of stay-at-home restrictions.

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Alternative and late-night programming has adjusted on the fly, with “American Idol” and “The Voice” shifting live shows to taped editions, with contestants, judges and coaches appearing remotely from home. “America’s Got Talent,” which was in production for the summer season when the pandemic arrived, taped remaining auditions without a studio audience and is moving forward in socially distanced form.

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Innovation may reign supreme in reality formats as well, which will likelier have an easier time adapting and restarting than scripted series. Although a May launch for “The Bachelorette” was scuttled by the pandemic, ABC alternative programming chief Rob Mills told USA TODAY he hopes to start filming this summer, raising the possibility of testing and quarantining the Bachelorette, her suitors and crew for on-set production. 

Late-night talk shows and “Saturday Night Live” were among the early adapters, with hosts and cast members appearing from home. Results have varied and it remains to be seen how shows dependent on group dynamics, such as “SNL,” will fare if cast members have to remain separated indefinitely.

Game shows and soap operas that taped a large number of episodes far in advance offered fresh fare well into the pandemic, but even that supply can run dry. “Jeopardy!” unwrapped a new four-week batch of shows in mid-May, the final originals for Season 36, but soap operas are now airing classic reruns after running out of new episodes, if not plotlines.

No matter how much programmers plan, the coronavirus, as it has in so many walks of life, will dictate what happens. Right now, that’s TV’s biggest cliffhanger.

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