Amid Coronavirus and 'Tiger King,' Reality Producers Double Down on Docuseries

"The question every producer is asking themselves right now is 'What can we make with the assets we have on hand?'"
Netflix
'Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness'

Most unscripted producers and documentarians aren't brainstorming ways to translate America's current, distorted reality of isolation and social-distancing into reality TV. They're looking through their own libraries of unused footage and past pitches, wondering if the next Tiger King hides somewhere inside.

"The question every producer is asking themselves right now is, 'What can we make with the assets we have on hand?'" says Thalia Mavros, founder of production company The Front. "And that's the same question we're being asked in all of our meetings with buyers."

The fact that TV's hit during this time of quarantine, at least according to Netflix and social media, is a seven-part true-crime documentary series that relies almost exclusively on archival footage and one-on-one interviews bodes well for a lot of unscripted producers. Not only can these types of projects come together quicker once current restrictions are loosened, much (if not all) of the work can even be done in the interim. Access to archival footage, remote postproduction capabilities and even teleconference interviews mean audiences are likely to see several docuseries born out of COVID-19's binding circumstances.

"There is a hunger for programming that can be created in its majority, if not entirely, in postproduction," notes ITV America chief creative TV officer David Eilenberg, who says ITV true-crime shingle Good Caper has been fielding requests from platforms that don't typically traffic in the popular genre. "People are concentrating on what can be executed in the near- to medium-term, rather than how we can respond culturally to what we're all going through."

Other genres that multiple producers say they've been getting targeted development asks for focus on the already popular areas of food and home. Cooking competitions and tutorials, which often require far fewer people on set, are expected to be among the first to resume or start production when things calm down. And with so many people stuck inside, orders for home improvement and design series are expected to climb. Asks Eilenberg, "What does the home-renovation genre even look like after everybody's been trapped in their homes for a few months?"

That's not to say there aren't asks going out for homebound-specific content — "The only pitches I'm getting any traction on are self-filmed competition formats," bemoans one reality producer — but those are not the norm and none have gone to series yet. Many assert that social-distancing-safe content will be limited to talk shows, news, social media and specials, all arenas that have had to respond in real time. (America's Got Talent, for one, is moving forward with online auditions to include in the NBC series' upcoming season after its traditional production schedule came to a halt.)

"People are still buying," says one studio chief, "but it's old pitches, not the stuff producers have come up with in response to corona. Everyone is very afraid of looking opportunistic right now."

Uncertainty around the calendar further complicates matters. Right now, Fox and iHeartRadio can successfully put together a concert benefit where Mariah Carey sings "Always Be My Baby," from her living room, to an audience of 4.6 million live viewers. But programmers and producers alike are leery about banking any similar content that doesn't get a near-immediate turnaround.

"We're thinking about future development with an eye on where everything might be three, six, nine months down the line," says Alfred Street Industries' Jane Lipsitz. "How much do audiences want a conversation about what's happening, and how much do they just want escapism?"

Finding ways to make feel-good programming, with the current limitations, is also a frequent question. Lipsitz and producing partner Dan Cutforth, behind Netflix's recent Marie Kondo series order, are discussing ways to approach a New York-set project — something that could incorporate the city's famous resilience, without dwelling too much on its status as the grim epicenter of America's COVID-19 cases, and be up and running when filming is possible again.

"We're talking a lot about shows that are research and clip driven, more documentary," says Cutforth, "things that don't require being in the field, so that they're mostly ready to go when we can shoot things."

Whether it's true crime or something that's intended to tug on heartstrings, one seemingly shared goal in this potential docuseries boom is to salvage as much cinematographic integrity as possible. Tiger King, after all, probably wouldn't have hit in quite the same manner if its eccentric participants had to open up over Skype. Notes one development executive: "When this is all over, no one is going to want to look at split screen ever again."