Producers, broadcasters and distributors are venturing into largely uncharted territory as the COVID-19 pandemic upends production activities across the globe. With ‘Weathering the Storm,’ Realscreen will examine the impact of the disruption upon various sectors of the non-fiction screen content industry, and reveal how different companies and stakeholders in the business are coping with the changing landscape.
In the last few months alone, filming has been postponed or outright canceled on shows such as ABC’s The Bachelor and Bachelorette, NBC’s America’s Got Talent, CBS’s The Amazing Race and BBC1′s Celebrity Race Across the World, to name just a few. In Australia, series such as Network 10′s Survivor have been reportedly postponed over travel restrictions.
Richard Watsham, director of commissioning at BBC-owned UKTV, tells Realscreen all of the broadcaster’s productions are impacted right now — but to “different degrees.”
“They’re all at different points in their schedule, and they’re all in different genres, different areas, different locations,” he explains. “The broad story for us in terms of original production is that it is incredibly complicated.”
He says UKTV — comprising around 250 employees — is working with producers on an individual basis. While the broadcaster hasn’t canceled anything yet, Watsham says a number of shows have been paused.
Still, he adds UKTV is exploring how to keep its productions up and running during this “difficult time,” and how it can move forward on productions in the development phase.
“If we don’t just think about it today, and we think about the next six months, we can think where we can actually get ahead of ourselves a little bit, where we can make sure we can come back stronger when we’re back up at full tilt,” Watsham (pictured below) explains.
“This should be a great development period for us — to work on new shows and new ideas. So when the virus dissipates, and we all hope that happens as soon as possible, we’re in the best position to stand up as many new ideas as we can.”
UKTV is “easing off” production on travel series Expedition with Steve Backshall (pictured), for example, and instead focusing on the preparation work that goes into each expedition.
“It is our hope and intention that it’s only a pause and we can get those shows back up again. In order to do that, we need swift work now to understand what the costs are — what’s been spent so far, to understand what we’ve got in the can, to understand what costs would be required to re-mount the show later on — so that we can get as many as possible, if not all, of those shows back up and running,” he adds.
STRIKING A BALANCE
In the U.S., Perry Simon, chief programming executive and general manager of audience programming at PBS, says the pubcaster is in “constant contact” with its producing partners.
“Trying to support them in any way we can by altering delivery schedules, altering our broadcast schedule to accommodate this issue… It’s dealing with the disruptions to what we already had planned, but then also looking for opportunities to create new relevant content that reflects the situation we’re currently in,” he explains.
Some of that content has included Confronting Coronavirus: A PBS Newshour Special, which featured interviews with officials and a virtual town hall, and the ‘Frontline’ documentary Coronavirus Pandemic, about the U.S. government’s response to the outbreak.
“Obviously, as a public broadcaster, we have a real responsibility to fulfill our mission to provide timely and important information to the public. So we’re doing a lot on that front,” Simon (pictured below) says. “From a content standpoint, there’s also our desire to balance all of this with programming that informs, inspires and entertains. We’re continuing to offer a steady stream of quality factual history programming, documentaries, dramas, arts.”
Similarly, in Scotland, public service broadcaster STV outlined its plans last week (March 19) to navigate the interruptions caused by the pandemic. Chief executive Simon Pitts said in a statement: “People and businesses across the country are now profoundly impacted by the coronavirus and we recognize the vital role that public service broadcasters like STV will play through this extended period of disruption.”
Still, Simon says public service broadcasters will face delivery disruptions “like everyone else,” and PBS is working to “manage through all of the challenges which are proliferating rather than just increasing every day.”
Part of the the strategy to manage those challenges is the creation of a “shadow schedule” to run in-case of programming disruptions.
“We want to be ready if any project is not able to deliver, we don’t want to be scrambling at the last moment to figure out what we’re doing to fill it with. We want to be sure that we can stay on the air in a consistent and reliable way. We’re obviously hoping that the shadow schedule is as minimally disruptive as possible. We want to provide stability to our stations in terms of the content that we’re providing them,” Simon says.
Among its other efforts, PBS documentary strand ‘POV’ has relaunched its Artist Emergency Fund with a new pilot initiative focused on mental health as part of a larger effort to support the independent documentary community. Simon says the pubcaster is also working to continue local engagement initiatives digitally.
Though the non-scripted industry is reeling from the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19, Watsham says there are a few upsides.
“Broadcasters are adding more repeat into their schedule, in order to make their money go further, and obviously that is something that is going to happen more, certainly over the next few months” he adds. “People will come to expect repeats a little bit more… And that might actually liberate broadcasters then to put a bit more money into peak, and a little bit of money elsewhere. Especially for those linear broadcasters where they’re trying to fill a whole schedule.”
Watsham also expects the industry to become “more tolerant” of shifting production values.
“This might be something that helps that high-cost, linear origination market bridge the gap between the lower cost, individual kind of YouTube short-form market — it might get us all thinking a little bit differently to populate that space between those two worlds.”