You see it on TV screens everywhere: oddly-framed video via Skype. Fuzzy interviews on Zoom. Awkward audio delays. B-roll shot from far, far away. The coronavirus has this industry turning to low-rent techniques as temporary fillers while big-ticket production is on an extended pause. In fact, regular shooting has stopped on anything that requires random people to be close to each other on location or in a studio. It’s no surprise that sporting events, The Bachelor and Survivor were among the first to close down production. How could they continue without lots of interpersonal activity? While some productions are trying to make the best of it (like HGTV’s Design at Your Door), the list of shuttered documentaries, TV shows and movies makes you wonder: What will fill our screens when the cupboard is bare of premieres in a few months? How or when will we ever catch up?
The ravages of the pandemic are affecting this business in the same way that it is decimating others. The shutdown is gutting the indie world where pools of freelancers move from gig to gig, and staffers are furloughed, placed on hiatus or laid off. Some producers are trying to keep busy with post-production, creating compilation episodes, or working on future development. In the meantime, while we worry about paying the rent and wait for the industry to resume, we’re trying to game out what survival in production and fact-based programming will look like in the future.
Your next Zoom video conference may be starting soon, but consider this as you pretend to be watching the meeting on your screen:
With social distancing, it’s almost impossible to produce compelling programming that involves people and production crews in close proximity. There’s no way to stay six feet apart all the time. Newscasts are sending their anchors to broadcast from home (and why do so many feel the need to have bookcases in the background?). For documentary, long-form or reality producers, it’s a steeper uphill battle. Will we ever get up-close and personal with subjects again?
Look to user-generated and archive content. For now, face the reality: shooting and editing is already a folk art, as anyone can pick up their phone and start recording decent video. And rudimentary editing is constantly on display on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook. Of the bazillions of hours of content available, some of it is pretty good –- and interesting way beyond Funniest Home Videos, headline stories or newscast fillers. Now, with standards changing right before our eyes (see next item below), this content may inspire the creativity to weave it more adroitly into existing programs –- or create new forms entirely. Similarly, there are archives waiting to be mined, with great footage if you know how to repurpose it. Among many examples, check out two recent documentaries where historical footage creates an entirely new look at an old story: Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 and Erik Nelson’s The Cold Blue.
Production value? Who cares? With the pandemic, mainstream production is beginning to look like low-level YouTube. We’ve come to terms with images of people in tiny boxes with minimal lighting and a low-res camera. A blurred picture with audio break-up? No problem. Inferior production values are now the norm. Is it a virus-related trend or the way of the future? Thanks to the pandemic, the general audience is already more tolerant of what was once thought of as unacceptable video or audio if it’s relevant to the program.
Home alone. Who knew that so many of us could be as productive –- or even more productive –- working from home? The shock seems to be wearing off, and things are getting done, even at big companies. Some are wondering what was filling up their time in the office in the first place. Sure, Zoom meetings have yet to get beyond an awkward protocol. But apart from the socialization and free coffee, why go back to headquarters?
So, if you haven’t already, prepare to embrace what a 15-year-old already knows — pandemic or no pandemic, video content production is different now than it was a few years ago, and unlikely to change back anytime soon.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.