For reality TV producers, an unreal situation has only made their content more real.
Under coronavirus restrictions, producers were faced with a catch-22. On the one hand, viewers were sheltering at home and watching more content than ever. On the other hand, producing content when health and safety guidelines prohibit interaction between cast and crew seemed nearly impossible. The solution: a new type of reality content that brought viewers closer to those being filmed, even as social-distancing guidelines were maintained.
This is part 2 of a two-part series on how COVID-19 has impacted film and TV production. Part 1 can be found here:
How the pandemic could change film, TV production for good
"When the world shut down in March, we had a team meeting, about 15 of us," Kathleen Finch, Discovery Inc.'s chief lifestyle brands officer, said in an interview. "The realization: We just can't sit there and quit."
A new Discovery
Discovery's studios needed to make content, and it needed to make content that worked in a pandemic. Finch and her colleagues began thinking about reality fare and realized they were already at an advantage over other networks that relied more heavily on scripted content. Where film and scripted series had to struggle with large in-person, on-set staff to tell their stories, reality TV often only needs a single star or family of stars, a room and a single camera. In many cases, that single camera could even be a phone.
What followed was a content pivot for Discovery, one that Finch believes will remain even after the pandemic.
For example, Discovery-owned studio TLC (US) changed the format of its new dating show "Find Love" to focus on virtual dating, which resonated with many viewers grappling with lengthy quarantine mandates.
The lockdown period also hit during the production of its new show "Doubling Down with the Derricos," which follows the life of a large family that includes both twins and quintuplets. To accommodate the quarantine, producers gave the family GoPro cameras and cellphones to shoot their own footage. The father and grandmother featured in the show both contracted COVID-19 during filming, and for Discovery, what followed were "some of our most intimate moments" ever shot as the family tried avoiding passing the virus to their loved ones, Finch said.
Three of Discovery's networks tracked their highest ratings ever in the second quarter while airing quarantine content, she added, and some of the lessons the producers learned about what audiences appreciate will likely carry on into future productions.
"These shows resonated with fans. That's very gratifying," she said. "Our fans really appreciate the intimate, relatable moments, what's really the reality of the situation."
"Big Brother" adopted new protocols to protect cast and crew.
Producers on CBS (US) reality game show "Big Brother" had a similar experience, if a little more complicated, a source close to that production said. Despite some new dystopian protocols — which included quarantining cast members, weekly COVID-19 tests, a tangle of personal protective equipment, constant sterilization of equipment and dividing cast and crew into group "pods" to limit contact — many efficiencies and best practices emerged.
"We knew going into producing shows during a pandemic that it would be a challenge," a source said, asking to remain anonymous for the interview so they could speak candidly about the high-profile show. "COVID has expedited people getting in and out and getting their jobs done."
Because "Big Brother" included a large cast and crew, the effort came with some budgetary pressure, the source said. In the end, the studio gleaned a range of best practices that will lead to efficiencies in the future.
That trend contrasts sharply with scripted TV and film, which have seen little more from the pandemic than increased budgets and massive delays due to the coronavirus. Reality TV was the first production sector to rebound in Los Angeles following the lockdown period, according to FilmLA. Even given that much of reality TV is produced in home or in a studio and does not require a special permit, October was the first month since productions resumed that permits for scripted TV outpaced those for reality TV, with scripted comprising 10% of permits compared to 6% for reality.
The pandemic is also advancing production technology. News and reality shows that were once filmed and produced in-person are now seeing highly virtualized workflows. And capital expenditures are being funneled away from physical assets to the virtual.
"We were deciding to build a second control room in 2019," Sam Asfahani, CEO of esports and gaming production company OS Studios, said during a recent panel discussion. "Now, instead, we're looking at cloud-based solutions, so we don't have to invest anything in capex."
Collaboration tools are also advancing rapidly. Not only are meetings being virtualized, but the camera, film editing and administration efforts are also going into the cloud, said Aaron Nagler, operator of Cheesehead TV, a news site focused on the Green Bay Packers NFL team.
On the content side, the education curve in self-production is creating new opportunities for talent, Asfahani explained. For example, the managers of a basketball star may have charged $20,000 for a personal appearance before. Now that may just be $5,000 because the talent is appearing remotely, shooting from his own home and without need for a camera crew and a cadre of personal assistants. That same star also has greater opportunities to self-monetize by creating his own in-home shows and branding opportunities.
On the viewer side, fan-controlled production technology is also advancing rapidly due to the pandemic, said Sean Gardner, senior manager at semiconductor and video tech company Xilinx Inc. He pointed to remote cameras, collaborative software and virtual reality. It may not be long before sports viewers can choose their favorite camera angles, call on instant replays, integrate a game with their own personal fantasy league — and studios and producers can monetize each of those features.
"Fundamentally, what we would have seen in the technology life cycle that would have taken two years was shrunken down into months," Gardner said.