TV Has Mostly Stopped Production. What Happens Next?

Modern Family BTS - Publicity - H 2020
Bruno Calvo/ABC

As production grinds to a halt amid a global pandemic, the television industry, like nearly every other, is navigating unchartered territory.

And while there are many more questions than answers, The Hollywood Reporter polled all corners of the business to try to get a read on where everything is — and is headed. What, for instance, will come of the traditional TV season? How about the 60 broadcast pilots that are suddenly on hold? And what about a potential writers strike, which was supposed to be the thing that stopped production this spring?

In every case, writers, reps and executives — all experimenting with virtual providers like WebEx and Zoom for the first time — would only speak on the condition of anonymity given the rapidly changing nature of our current world. 

What does shutting down really mean?

Two types of "shutdowns" have emerged.

The first, impacting mostly broadcast shows, refers to the abrupt end to a season. So, you'll have hours and half-hours that will not resume production on the one or more episodes that remained of their current seasons. For series that will be renewed, or in some cases already scored early pickups, the outstanding episodes will likely be "rolled" to the 2020-21 season, whenever that begins (more on that later). The downside for viewers: The shows that hadn’t yet completed their seasons will not wrap up storylines or have traditional finales this spring — and those that won’t be renewed will end prematurely, potentially limiting their ability to sell or stream elsewhere.

The second type of "shutdown" can be thought of as a hiatus, which is more typical of cable and streaming shows that don’t adhere to a strict calendar the way broadcast does. Take Fargo, which will simply shift its planned premiere, previously set for April 19, later in the year since it had two episodes of 10 outstanding when the outbreak forced a stoppage. Doing so isn’t without fallout here, too. Consider this: Fargo had been a key piece of the network’s 2020 Emmy strategy, with Noah Hawley's award-winning series expected to be a major contender in the limited series category. 

Can all of these shows just pick up where they left off?

Resuming production on halted shows won’t be quite as easy as it sounds. Given the demands of the Peak TV era, soundstages and crews are already booked out several months, even years, in advance; and the same can be true of writers, actors and directors, who increasingly commit to other projects during their respective hiatuses. "It's all going to be dictated by time," a top cable exec says of which productions will resume and when. The exec also notes that some projects could be pushed an entire calendar year as they're forced to navigate production space and talent availability. Several studios are already in conversations about extending the options on casts for bubble shows and broadcast pilots from the standard June 30 expiration date.

According to multiple sources, some outlets are said to be mulling ways in which they can resume production and still adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's current recommendation to avoid larger gatherings for the next eight weeks. Those include filming in shifts, with one reduced staff department completing its work, and the next group coming in afterward. Such a plan has been discussed for American Idol, which, at press time, had its live show episodes around the corner.

And what about in the interim?

Many studios will have to decide how long they can hold productions before moving off of a planned delivery date or, worse, scrapping productions entirely. "Holding sets, locations and a crew, that's a lot — and it's expensive," notes one senior studio source. In other cases, shows have already wrapped physical production but are now tied up in the postproduction process, which can also entail working in large groups. Several postproduction and VFX houses are still said to be in operation as they rush to deliver final assets.

A silver lining: plenty of shows have been quietly stockpiling scripts already in anticipation of a possible Writers Guild strike. (Sources say an extension of the current deal, set to expire April 30, is more likely given the current landscape.) In fact, many broadcast writers rooms had remained open after completing work on their 2019-20 seasons and were already prepping scripts for the upcoming season. Those (now virtual) rooms are still up and running, with many execs surveyed by THR singling out how that same strike prep could ultimately help everyone down the line should the production pause continue beyond the previously announced two to three weeks.

So, what happens to all of the pilots?

Most of the 60 drama and comedy pilots being made across the five networks had only recently begun production, and all of them have since shut down. That creates a larger quandary for broadcasters who are tied to the September-to-May television season. As of now, all five networks are still scheduled to present their fall schedules to deep-pocketed ad buyers, albeit with digital upfront presentations, the week of May 11. But what exactly are they presenting? At least for the time being, the week of May 11 is the earliest production could resume, presuming studios adhere to the current eight-week CDC recommendation (which, like everything else, is subject to change).

In the interim, some networks are already toying with the idea of adopting a cable or streaming model, whereby they pick up high-profile pilots straight to series based on the collective strength of the script, auspices and cast. Another option being discussed is ordering showrunners to open virtual rooms in an effort to get ahead on scripts and, in success, be able to begin production as soon as it's considered safe. Funds that were previously earmarked for production could be redirected to pay for those additional scripts. (ABC, in a new strategy, has already opened writers rooms for a number of its drama pilots, including its Thirtysomething update.)

And how about the season as we know it?

Multiple insiders say that should production resume mid-May, Premiere Week — starting Sept. 21 — would likely still happen, though new shows could be delayed. And if production is delayed beyond May? "January may become the new September if we lose three months of production," says one veteran exec. Should that happen, that would likely mean fewer new series and a reduction in the number of episodes ordered.

As for what will line the schedule, many suggest bubble shows now have a sizable advantage. After all, these are programs that networks have already spent millions to license and market, and, almost as important, see as a known quantity. "Shows you'd have said 'no' to in May are now looking good because it's stability in a time of change," says one source. Another option that, per sources, could be considered is having unscripted programs previously earmarked for summer held for fall.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on: If the shutdown lingers for more than a few months, TV production will be the last of anyone's concerns. "Three months, we can keep development robust," says another executive, one of many who is now fielding pitches over virtual conference calls. "If this is an eight-month scenario, then we're all living in The Walking Dead and it's sustenance living."