The non-scripted business is gearing up for a return to full production, safely of course, over the next couple of months.
L.A. County has allowed the reopening of film and TV production, non-fiction trade group N-Pact, which includes members such as Endemol Shine North America and Wheelhouse Entertainment, released its own health and safety guidelines and Hollywood unions DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters released their detailed protocols.
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This has led many non-scripted buyers, producers and agents to be optimistic that filming on many shows, including a number of big-scale network series, will resume this July and August.
Below, Deadline looks at how shows such as NBC’s America’s Got Talent and CBS’ Love Island are proceeding, lays out the challenges of returning safely to production and reveals an optimism about development.
NBC has been working through plans for AGT, which returned on May 26. The first six audition shows were filmed before the shutdown and the network is hoping to shoot its Judge Cuts episodes at the end of the month, with modifications, and is planning how to shoot its live episodes. Jenny Groom, NBC’s EVP, Alternative Programming & Development, tells Deadline that the ambition is for the show to run through with no weeks off. “We’re looking at a lot of different options because it’s hard to envision a room full of people packing into the Dolby Theater,” she adds.
NBC has four of these tentpole shows – AGT, American Ninja Warrior, Ellen’s Game of Games and the next run of The Voice – lined up to shoot this summer as well as three new shows.
Groom warns that coronavirus will still be a threat to filming in July and August and it is working through a number of contingency plans. “It’s an ever-evolving conversation,” she adds. “Each day we go on, our head of production is giving us better news.”
CBS is dealing with issues on four tentpole shows; The Amazing Race, Survivor, Big Brother and Love Island, the latter of which are more contained than its pair of adventure formats.
David George, CEO of Love Island producer ITV America, says that the coronavirus has forced them to come up with a “fresh take” on the reality dating format in its second season. He says that the easiest way to move forward is to completely quarantine everyone in and working on the show. “Protocol puts the entire show in a bubble, once you join the show, you don’t leave the show,” he says, adding that coronavirus testing that offers immediate results is key.
George, who is already seeing some of ITV America’s property shows shot in in the Midwest return to production, says that the biggest issue the industry is facing right now is that insurers are not covering COVID-19. “If a show shuts down, neither the network or the production company are covered so it’s a huge gamble for networks to go back into production on these big shows. It means we have to have much more stringent safety protocols. If someone gets sick on an arc-narrative show like Love Island and we have to shut that show down, the show can’t come back, it’s not like we can take two weeks and be cleaned, that show shoots over a month and once there’s a break in the narrative, it can’t come back,” he adds.
Deadline has heard of one broadcast network series that had been renewed, which is now on hold as the network evaluates the risk/reward of moving forward. Sources tell Deadline that some networks are also adding language to existing contracts to cover for issues related to COVID-19.
Elsewhere, Fox is working out how to resume filming on shows such as mystery music format I Can See Your Voice, which filmed one episode before shutdown, and The Masked Dancer, which would have been on air by now.
“The moving target of it all is what creates the volume of work, not knowing what’s happening and the way things change on a seemingly daily basis. Now the focus, and this is media wide, is to get back to work earnestly,” Fox alternative chief Rob Wade tells Deadline.
He adds that the non-scripted industry needs to come together to get back to work. “I feel the natural inclination of production companies, studios and networks is to be in competition, but this is a case where we need to come together and apply pressure on the right groups to make sure that we can come back to work safely and make the shows safely,” he adds.
Similarly, ABC still needs to shoot The $100,000 Pyramid, Card Sharks and Supermarket Sweep. SVP, Alternative Series, Specials & Late-Night Programming Rob Mills says these shows are ready to go into production as soon as they can, safely.
The availability of studio space is top of mind for many. One producer tells Deadline, “I suspect there’s going to be a mad rush in August with everyone trying to film everything before it all gets shut down again in the winter. It’s going to be crazy.” An agent adds, “It’s no secret that there’s going to be a shortage of spaces this fall, depending on how quickly things ramp up so everyone is jockeying for position. A lot of networks are looking at the end of summer to shoot as much as possible.”
Then there’s the issue of crews and freelancers. ITV America’s George says, “I think there’s going to be a huge run on personnel, which is going to be music to everyone’s ears who have not been working.” However, others worry that the rush might actually deflate wages with some people working for below their rate because they need the work after three months unemployed.
Studio-based shows will likely look at the finale of The Voice (right), which saw Carson Daly return to Universal Studios with the show bringing in two temperature tests per day, health bracelets and masks with filters as well as reinvented craft services. NBC’s Groom says that it learned a number of lessons from that production. However, Daly did not shoot all six live episodes at the studio. “We shot the first show [at Universal] but then we had to pivot and shot him for the back half at his house but no one really realized it because the producers were so creative,” Groom adds.
There are other lessons to be learned from abroad as well, as seen by MasterChef Australia’s return to production with social distancing. Some networks are likely to look at whether they can send contestants to countries that have not been hit as hard, such as Australia and New Zealand.
Ninja Warrior also recently returned in Germany and Groom says it was watching intently for its own version of the competition format. “It’s interesting to see what productions in other countries are starting to do and what learnings we can take from those and see what we’re doing,” she adds.
There are also question marks over casting as many of the big entertainment formats hold roadshows across the country to find talent. American Idol, for instance, has found success with its nationwide searches, discovering contestants such as Arthur Gunn (left), who moved from Nepal to Kansas and turned up to one of Idol’s bus-stops. Idol showrunner and President of Entertainment Programming for FremantleMedia North America Trish Kinane told Deadline that there’s uncertainty as to whether it will be able to roll this out for next season. “Where we find really interesting people, much more raw talent, we send these buses around the country and people turn up, quirky people. These are the people you’d never find on Instagram or TikTok. What we don’t know is whether we’ll be able to send those buses out in August like we normally do, because can we have crowds of people turning up?”
2021 NON-SCRIPTED DEVELOPMENTS
Despite all of the issues highlighted above, many in the non-scripted world are optimistic that the business will come out of the other side of this stronger than ever.
“In the first few weeks of this whole lockdown there was not a lot of business getting done, but in the last three to four weeks, things have taken off like a rocket ship,” said one source. “The creative fire that has come out of this is pretty cool. Probably the best stuff I’ve seen in years and ideas that can take us through the next 5-10 years. I am beyond excited for 2021.”
CAA Alternative Television Agent Matthew Horowitz told Deadline that the agency has continued to see considerable business being done from home. “The great challenge is how [our clients] can continue to produce shows at scale but make them nimble enough so they can still satisfy audiences in circumstances where remote production becomes necessary again,” he said. “We remain very confident that non-scripted will continue to flourish through and after this and prove to be more innovative than ever.”
His CAA colleague David Gross added that many buyers are starting to work with clients that they previously haven’t worked with. “In this very difficult time, we are seeing tremendous ingenuity and creativity. There are opportunities for development and new ways to tell stories,” he added.
Hayden Meyer, Partner, EVP, Head of Alternative and Factual Programming, APA, believes that buyers want to “swing for the fences” and “go big” for when the pandemic is over. “There’s a rabid hunger amongst the buyers to buy,” he told Deadline. “There’s been extra creativity during this time because resources were not being deployed in production. I think we’re going to see some really big ideas. 2021 is going to be a great year for the entertainment industry.”
Fox’s Wade agrees that scale is incredibly important for new commissions. He expects to see more big gameshow ideas and other formats that can look big but that might also be able to be shot without live audiences. He also points out that many major entertainment shows can take up to two years to get on air. “We’re certainly developing for the future. If someone pitches a big physical entertainment show, I’d still do it because you have to develop it, you don’t have to film it for another year,” he adds.
NBC’s Groom says the network has bought three new ideas while in quarantine. “We’re in heavy development mode,” she says. “It’s cool to see the ideas that are coming out of it. There are some really big swings that will take some time… that we’ll have in a year from now. She agrees that she has seen more gameshow ideas during COVID-19. “You can envision that being in a smaller studio with new technology that you’re using and not having a massive set build or out in the field.”
ABC’s Mills says that he is taking as many pitches as he did before, only now it’s over Zoom. “First and foremost, we want to entertain the biggest, broadest audience possible,” he says. “Things are going to get better, there’s better days ahead and there’s lessons everywhere, you just have to look and learn and I think it’s going to lead to better shows regardless of the situation that we’re in.”
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