In this followup to ‘Weathering the Storm’ — a series that examined the disruption of COVID-19 on various sectors of the non-fiction screen community — Realscreen is looking to the future as the industry moves from the impact of the onset of the pandemic, and readies for a return to work. Here, we talk with broadcasters about producing and commissioning.
As governments ease restrictions designed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus that sent much of the world into lockdown months ago, the film and TV industry is coming back to life with cautious optimism.
Driven by a desire to keep productions afloat and programming schedules full, many broadcasters are operating at full-tilt heading into the fall, a period many public health experts anticipate will see a rise in COVID-19 cases globally and potentially, a second wave of infections.
“It feels like when you’re walking along in that deep fog and you can only see five feet ahead of you,” Jennifer Dettman (pictured left), executive director of unscripted at Canadian pubcaster CBC, says. “So much of what we do in television is planning out.”
In March, like many other broadcasters, the CBC pivoted to self-shot, fast-turnaround content such as Stronger Together, a celebrity-packed benefit for Canadian food banks carried across several broadcasters in the country. Now, the network is deep in production on heavy hitting formats including Family Feud, Dragon’s Den and Battle of the Blades, with rigorous safety protocols in place. Producers are also working on a tightened schedule so post-production can happen remotely if governments backpedal on recently lifted restrictions.
Like Dettman, Sarah Lazenby, head of features and formats at Channel 4, said the UK pubcaster was first focused on fast turnaround commissions such as Jamie Oliver’s Keep Cooking and Carry On and Celebrity Snoop Dog.
“As the world sort of opened up again we’ve started to look at getting some of our big brands back on on the rails,” Lazenby says. One of those was The Great British Bake Off from UK-based Love Productions (main image).
“We were sort of battling the hospitality industry opening up because obviously we needed a place where the bakers, the crew, the talent could bake, film and live,” she explains.
Producers shot the format, now in its 10th season, in a completely sterile environment following a nine-day quarantine and three COVID-19 tests.
“There’s a whole other layer of work, but a necessary one, right? Because we are a creative industry, there’s an army of freelancers that rely upon our content and our commissions,” Lazenby says.
“I have protocols after protocols I need to sign as productions are coming up. March was the closing down, the taking stock. Our scheduling team worked so hard and they had to basically rebuild their schedule. We were clever with reversions, but they’ve built a schedule of ‘treats and repeats.’”
For Nancy Daniels, chief brand officer at Discovery and factual — overseeing Discovery Channel and Science Channel in the U.S. — the networks were at an advantage when production shut down.
“We’re lucky at Discovery, being a lot of what we do is remote,” she says. “We’re able to go out and film with small crews on boats out in the middle of the ocean. What could be safer than that for a quarantine situation?”
Daniels says the “Zoom-ification” of content, a novelty at the onset of the pandemic, has worn thin.
“It’s nice to see, reflected on screen, that life might actually get back to normal and we might be able to keep telling stories,” she says. “We’ve been looking at, ‘How can you elevate that and take it to the next level?’”
Series launched by Discovery brands in recent months include Discovery Channel’s Josh Gates Tonight and Dodgeball Thunderdome, the latter shot in just two weeks.
“We started shooting a self-shot talk show with [Gates] out of his spare bedroom in his house. Started with a 10 minute aftershow, expanded to hour shows,” Daniels says. “He’s made the show better and better and better to the point where we actually made it our late night show during ‘Shark Week’ and got his highest number yet for the show.”
Daniels says Discovery is currently most interested in quick turnaround content, as well as programming with co-viewing potential.
“What we’ve been looking at things we can shoot a little quicker. Rather than having a six-month shoot, have something you can shoot in bulk over a week or two and get a number of episodes,” Daniels says.
“When you say that a network has a shelf, our shelf is empty. Things don’t hit the shelf. They come in and they go on the air. That’s the world we’re living in right now. I really am thankful to the producers and everyone who’s working so hard to figure this out because this is hard.”
Like Daniels, CBC’s Dettman says, as viewers grapple with “Zoom fatigue,” the pubcaster is moving beyond self-shot TV with an eye toward scalable content that can be executed if the pandemic shutters productions in the fall.
“We’re just very mindful of where we might be a year from now and what we’re able to do,” Dettman says. “Something that I think a lot about is, as we are so separated from one another, that need to show and bring people together is more important than ever before. So we certainly are looking for shows that have that component, that experience for audiences as a key part of the format.”
Lazenby (left) says C4 didn’t venture too far into Zoom territory. Most recently, the pubcaster commissioned the part-scripted, part-travelogue series A Great British, Female, Gay, Disabled, Covid Compliant Adventure (w/t) with host Rosie Jones.
“We have to still recognize that we’re in a different position now, we have probably fewer creative rolls of the dice… We’re having to be creative financially and editorially,” Lazenby says, adding collaborations and copros are a “great way to make money go further,” while short-form and digital can serve as a launching pad for talent and ideas.
“The ad-funded relationships are supersized, actually. And I think that some really brilliant things come out of that,” Lazenby says.
For most broadcasters, while viewership numbers may have climbed during lockdown, revenues and advertising have slumped in recent months as the pandemic continues to grip the global economy.
Discovery saw a 14% decrease in ad revenues for Q2 2020, while ViacomCBS reported a 27% dip in ad revenue for the quarter. In Fox’s Q4 2020 report, ad revenues fell 22%.
CBC’s ad revenue decreased 14.8% in the first quarter of 2020-21 as advertising spend plummeted. In the UK, ITV reported a 43% drop in ad revenue for the second quarter of 2020 and, earlier this year, C4 cut its content budget by £150 million in the face of the restraints imposed by the pandemic.
As C4 looks ahead to the rest of 2020 and 2021, Lazenby says the formats and features unit is still after the “most original, channel-defining, genre-busting shows,” despite funding challenges posed by the current situation.
“Bring us the show that you bounce out of bed in the morning and want to make. Of course there’s a level of pragmatism. And I think we’re getting that a little bit more in maybe low cost stuff or clever reversions or things that we know do a good job, bring volume, broad appeal… But I don’t think that needs to compromise creative ambition because if you have a great idea, we will find a way of funding it. If it’s that good, we’ll get a copro,” Lazenby says.
“KEEP MOVING FORWARD”
While the fall and winter pose much uncertainty for the industry, Dettman says she’s approaching the new COVID-19 reality day by day.
“We’re going to keep moving forward and hopefully, God willing, we will be able to get through the productions. And I hope there isn’t a second wave, but if there is one, hopefully we’re through it before we’re having to shut down,” she adds. “I think it’s just important that we are back in production for our industry, for our independent community. I think it’s good that they’re back in business and getting to work at this time when they can.”
“Right when you think things are going good, something will make you have to take a U-turn and go back. I don’t know how to prepare other than to prepare for anything,” she says.
“It could happen next week, it could happen next month, it could happen in five months that something comes up and we have to pull back again… We do look to run and get as much done as we can but we’re also preparing for the unknown.”