Though the COVID-19 pandemic brought the production industry to a standstill, networks and production partners are working together to seize opportunities and keep franchises alive by adopting new techniques and approaches.
Moderated by Ugly Brothers Studios co-founder Mike Duffy, Realscreen Live’s virtual session, “Reimagined reality: How we rescued our series”, brought together a panel of experts on Wednesday (June 3).
Panelists included James Bates, SVP of U.S. factual at UK-headquartered Raw TV; Lauren Gellert, EVP of development and original programming at American pay-TV channel WEtv; Jenny Groom, EVP and head of alternative programming and development at NBC Entertainment; Trish Kinane, president of entertainment programming at global production outfit Fremantle; and Laura Palumbo Johnson, partner at New York-based Magilla Entertainment.
“This is a really scary and daunting time for everybody,” Duffy (pictured, bottom left) says. “There are silver linings to what’s going on with the innovation that is informed by this COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine.”
Fremantle’s Kinane (top left) shared how ABC’s American Idol became one of the first shiny-floor formats to return to television amid COVID-19 restrictions.
“When it first started to become apparent that the virus was serious, we had finished all our taped shows and we were about to go into our live studio shows, so our decisions were quite complex,” she explains. “We sent all our contestants home to be with their families.”
The company’s challenge was to work remotely across more than 45 locations, accounting for contestants, judges, editors and producers.
“We were looking at upping the ante with how it looked, how it sounded and how we put it together to try and give it some gloss,” Kinane explains. “You can see the contestants embracing the challenge of ring lights and microphones, and the families became lighting people and helpers.”
Kinane says the team had to become “Internet cops,” navigating myriad challenges such as Internet connections in contestants’ homes. “Normally you’ve got these people with producers all around them. We’re all control freaks and we like to be able to control things,” she adds.
NBC Entertainment’s Groom (top right) echoed Kinane, adding she faced similar hurdles with The Voice‘s virtual happy hour.
“How do we make this happen knowing everybody is working remotely?” Groom remembers asking. “As Trish mentioned, you’re not there with them. There’s not a lot of control.”
Though much of the special was shot remotely from the homes of coaches and contestants, Groom says NBC worked with lawyers, the production team, doctors and a number of other professionals to be able to shoot on NBC’s lot with reduced staff who underwent temperature checks and wore masks, among other measures.
A day before the special was set to go live, however, the team got word that Los Angeles County had “changed their blessing.”
“We had to scramble,” Groom recalls. “It was nail-biting. It continued for those next two weeks. Whenever you thought, ‘We’ve got this down, we’re good to go,’ something else popped up. But I think it really speaks volumes to this community and the producers and everybody’s willingness to be creative and break through barriers and to find solutions, because we all want to continue to employ people. We all want to continue to work. We want to continue to provide entertainment and joy for our fans at home watching. So, it was cool to see it come together.”
Quaranshine saw the cast creating their own high-proof hand sanitizer in quarantine and sharing other tips for living in isolation; while Diesel Brothers Hunkered and Bunkered saw the duo showcase current quarantine builds and embark on socially distanced adventures, all while conducting interviews with leaders in the motor world.
“On Moonshiners in general, it’s always a pretty small footprint,” she explains. “At the very beginning of this, we had to go out and buy a bunch of iPhones and figure out how to get ready with Filmic Pro… We also had to send them vlog kits. We were purchasing whatever we could online and figuring out how to streamline across our shows… It was frantic in the beginning.”
After COVID-19 distancing measures were enforced in March, WEtv’s Gellert (bottom right) says the team was navigating new terrain.
“We were all just trying to get used to even connecting between the production team and the development team and the creative services team and our head of the network,” she notes.
The AMC Networks-owned channel decided to leverage the expertise of the ex-convicts featured in the Sharp Entertainment-produced Life After Lockup series, who offer advice for living in lockdown.
“We’ve done some really dynamic things with getting on the air quickly,” Gellert says. “The reality is no matter how we show [it to] the viewer, we have to show the story… That’s the blessing of unscripted television in this moment in time.”
Duffy shifted the conversation to Bates (top center), asking how Raw TV adapted to film Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush in far-flung locations such as the Yukon and Alaska.
“The [mining] season was just about to kick off when the lockdown happened,” Bates says. While miners were able to cross the U.S. border into Canada, production crews were not.
“We had to recruit from a pretty small talent pool. There are [around] 37,000 people in the Yukon,” he adds. “Anyone who can hold a camera or a microphone… [was] getting trained up. There are two brothers we hired this week, one’s 18 and one’s 21. They’re both experimental young filmmakers and they just got their first big break in reality TV.”
Bates explained Gold Rush was usually produced by a crew of 200, including 70 in the field. That number has fallen to just 15.
“One thing we’re all thinking about is our responsibility to contributors, to crew, to communities we work with. None of us are real experts in virology and the medical side of this,” he says.
Both Bates and Duffy praised Blackmagic Design technology that allowed producers to connect with editing teams remotely. Bates added crews have been using A10 microphone systems, which record as well as transmit.
Though the panelists are tackling remote production, both Groom and Gellert are looking beyond COVID-proof content.
“The reality is, a great show and great storytelling is really the answer to new programming. It’s not about COVID, per se,” Gellert says. “It will always be about the story and the idea.”