COVID-19 is rewriting the rulebook for content production and consumption, and producers and networks are adopting their practices and protocols to meet this “new normal” head on.
A panel of executives gathered virtually Friday (June 5) on the final day of Realscreen Live for the session “Navigating the new normal,” moderated by Realscreen editor and content director Barry Walsh.
Panelists included Nancy Daniels, chief brand officer for Discovery and factual; ITV America CEO David George; Sharon Levy, president of unscripted and scripted television at Endemol Shine North America; and Tim Pastore, CEO of All3Media America.
“With the current unrest brewing in the U.S. right now, and the world, how is it impacting you, your teams, and how do you think the industry as a whole can and should react in terms of the content and in terms of the policies that might support Black communities and people of color?” Walsh (pictured, top left) asked.
Daniels (top center) said she recognizes an opportunity to use Discovery’s platform. “We have to do better,” she says. “It’s everything from what you see on the screen, the storytellers, the ranks within the company, the production companies we’re working with… A year from now, we have to hold ourselves accountable.”
Pastore (top right) added: “All3Media America stands in solidarity with the Black community now and always.
“I want to trust our continued commitment to be part of that solution, and that for us as a production company is the generation of more inclusive content development across all our companies and our pipelines internally, as well as employing more diverse talent in front of the camera as well as behind it. We have a long road ahead.”
Both Levy (bottom left) and George (bottom right) agreed on the importance of hiring practices.
“It’s taking shots at growing new talent. It’s making sure when you’re standing on a set and looking at the complexion of the crew that it is all shades, and in front of the camera,” Levy says.
Shifting gears, panelists shared how the pandemic is affecting production. Daniels said Discovery is “slowly” moving shows back into production.
“As much as I’d like to give some broad answer of ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it’s so nuanced,” Daniels said. “Every decision, every show, every shoot, whether you’re going to do it or not.”
The unscripted industry has an advantage over larger-budget scripted efforts, especially when it comes to docuseries, which are traditionally produced by smaller crews. Daniels said Discovery has been working closely with its producing partners, providing guidelines in accordance with local and state restrictions.
“I think we all can agree we want to get back to work. We want to get back out there and start shooting and getting our shows on the air,” she said. “So we’re trying to figure out a way to do that in the safest way possible.”
All3Media’s Pastore said the “ingenuity” across the industry has been “impressive.”
“We’ve been fortunate to get two programs into production during this pandemic but both in extreme virtual models,” he said.
One of those programs is Celebrity Watch Party, currently broadcasting on Fox, based on the BAFTA-winning format Gogglebox from UK prodco Studio Lambert.
“We were afforded the opportunity to make that for Fox because it is, fundamentally, a complete remote rig that we deliver and drop off with these individuals. We’re solely relying on them to have a strong internet connection,” Pastore said.
He added that All3Media is drawing up plans for return-to-work and waiting for restrictions to be eased in Los Angeles County and film permits to be allowed. “We’re probably a couple weeks away, working with our partners, having these open dialogues about, ‘What do safety protocols look like? What are the new workflows in the world?’ [We are] working with our experts to design those bespoke models for each individual program based on its needs and where it is in the world.”
Endemol Shine’s global reach means it’s up and running in a number of territories worldwide, Levy said. “As far as Endemol Shine North America, we are in post on many shows, including MasterChef, but we are not in physical production right now. We are in lots of variations of pre-production.”
She says the company is sharing best practices with peers and local Endemol Shine production outfits globally.
ITV America’s George said the team shifted quickly in response to COVID-19, setting up 330 to 350 remote edit systems up and running within two weeks across its U.S. offices.
“Every single one of our shows that were in post were able to continue,” he said. “So we’re still delivering those shows.”
Still, he admitted that content “starts to run dry after a while.”
“Like everybody else we’ve been champing at the bit to get back into production,” he said. “It’s difficult to coordinate between countries because every territory has a different protocol in place and it really works kind of like our states.”
He also said that Love Island is “very close” to coming back: “I can’t give all the details on it but I would say we’re at the five yard line with CBS and trying to figure that out and how to do a domestic version of it because travel is incredibly difficult.”
Smaller crews and outdoor shoots that allow for social distancing will come back online faster than big productions — and George said ITV America is tackling both.
Walsh asked the panel what some of those safety protocols will be, from voluntary testing to PPE.
For Daniels, it’s “constantly evolving.” On the broadest level, she said social distancing, fewer people, hygiene practices, screening and ensuring those with symptoms stay home are top of mind.
“We did put out some guidelines because we were all trying to figure it out,” she said. “We found that to be well received. We’re all in this together.”
Looking forward, Daniels said COVID-19 will change how the industry approaches production. “I think we will look back at this time as a total watershed moment.”
George agreed with Daniels.
“There’s no hiding the fact that content has to get cheaper… What are some alternative workflows that can come out of this? Is remote editing a longer term solution for certain shows that maybe can’t carry the expenses of having to put office space into it?” he said. “With the ad market completely in flux, budgets aren’t going to get any better. So, everybody’s going to have to be creative with how they accomplish shows going forward. If you’re not thinking outside of the box of how you go about doing that, you’re going to be left behind with an old dinosaur model that is not applicable to what’s happening.”
As the advertising model undergoes a major shift, Walsh asked whether the panelists are gravitating towards cost-efficient projects.
“Our budgets are tight. They’re not getting bigger. The cable business is in a complete state of change, and this COVID-19 time and this year is going to lead to lower revenues, no doubt about it,” Daniels said. “The expectation is to get the same amount of content hours with less money. It’s a hard thing to swallow for me, and it’s a hard thing to swallow for everyone else on this call.”
All3Media America’s Pastore said his team is keeping an open dialogue with network partners to navigate this “extremely complicated conversation.”
“Yes, the ad sales industry’s been devastated, programming budgets are coming down – but in the middle of a pandemic. post-COVID, certain aspects of production go up,” Pastore offered.
He also pointed to the potential expenses arising when each production will have a unique safety plan in place, which might require additional crew members.
“We all know now, the norm of working in a post-COVID world is medical experts on set… We need sterilization capacity and personnel to do such work, especially for the bigger stage-oriented productions,” Pastore explained. “How do we design the appropriate creative that allows us to offset some of those additional costs?”
Panelists capped off the discussion by discussing non-scripted post-pandemic, and the future of self-shot content.
Both Levy and George said the industry can expect to see more “pro-social” content moving forward. “I think you’ll still have your escapism programming, that’s not going anywhere. People will still want a break… But I do think you’ll see an increased focus on the pro-social and that genre,” George said.
Pastore added: “I think also networks and our platform partners are ready to move beyond quadrant programming and the virtual remote model and find ways to get back into the ‘new normal.’ Our development pipeline has really moved away from virtual model development now back into creative.”
Daniels said we’re entering a period of “Zoom fatigue.”
“How can we move that model forward? I think we’re all thinking about that.”