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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Rachel Nichols, ESPN reporter and host of NBA talk show The Jump, is, like many Americans, working from home these days — except in her case, that now means being in charge of her own filming and production as well. While she juggles interviewing out-of-work basketball stars with being a camerawoman, electrical grip and makeup artist, Nichols is also managing her twin 9-year-old daughters’ schedules of schoolwork and socially distance playdates. At home in Pacific Palisades with the pair and her husband, director Max Nichols, the NBA reporter opens up about changes to her show, belief in a salvageable basketball season and her post-quarantine James Bond fantasies.
Let’s start easy: how are you, especially balancing your show and homeschooling?
I’m still hosting a TV show every day, so like a lot of anchors you see I’m in front of a bookcase now instead of a giant television studio, and I also have twin third graders, so we’re trying to make life feel as normal for them as possible. Obviously they know life isn’t normal — they’re not going to school anymore and all of that — but we will have these outdoor playdates where I will drive over to a friend of their’s house and the friend will sit in a lawn chair on their front lawn and my kids will be in the back tailgate of our pickup truck, parked and contained right in the back of the pickup truck — with third graders you can’t really say to them, “Don’t get within six feet of each other” and have that hold. The idea is if they’re in the pickup truck and their friend is 10 feet away on the front lawn, that’s our playdate.
What does your day look like now?
I start at 7 a.m. on our show, The Jump. We had to move our schedule back a little bit because before all of this, when we were in the studio, we would go on live at noon every day. Because we are now using a completely different system to put out a national television show, we have to tape about an hour before — it’s sort of figuring out what new stories happened overnight, putting the show together. We tape late morning, the show airs, and we spend that hour in between crossing every finger and toe that no news breaks in that hour. Then in the afternoon, we do some interviews that air on the show, I try to get in a workout, do some schoolwork with my kids, and generally try to make the day feel a little bit more normal for them. I think it’s so interesting how in this time, the division between: Do you have younger kids or older kids who are completely up on the news and play video games? Do you live alone, completely by yourself, and are in this quarantine looking at your walls? Are you living with one other person? Are you living with your parents? All of these things that were kind of just side notes with your friends or with people you work with have become the defining thing of their lives.
What’s it been like to switch to a new production system?
It’s been crazy. I’ve been able to develop skills I didn’t know I had, so that’s good. I thought I was just a television journalist, it turns out that I am also a cameraman, I am an electrical grip, I’m an IT guy, I didn’t know that, I’m a makeup artist, definitely didn’t know that. There’s been a ton of time trying to learn how to do all kinds of jobs that people go to school for and are much, much better at than me and I am embarrassing all of them by trying to do it myself, but there’s no other choice. I think that that’s probably what a lot of us are finding out in all kinds of jobs, which is that you used to be able to say, “Well, I’m not really good at that, so I have someone else do that.” Well, there’s no one coming to do it. It’s you at your house, so you’d better learn to figure it out.
What’s been the easiest adjustment during this time? And the hardest?
The production is probably the hardest. The easiest? We thought once sports went down that there would be nothing to talk about, but it’s turned out [that’s not true.] We’re more than a month in, and there’s so much to talk about that it’s become a question of, “How are we going to fit everything into our daily show?” It turns out that there are still a lot of people looking to sports as an escape and I think they want to talk about it, even if it’s not happening right now. There are athletes who get into all kinds of stuff, even at home, and thanks to the magic of social media, we see all of that stuff and we can show our viewers what they’re doing — things like that, just like we would if they were playing out on the basketball court. Then you have networks like ESPN airing all of these classic old games and people are getting obsessed with those, too. So, it’s been a relief for those of us who talk about sports all day and have it be such a big part of our lives that there’s still a lot of that going on. I didn’t necessarily expect it.
How has it been booking players and other guests for the show?
It’s easier and harder at the same time. Some people, because they don’t have their normal public relations person, there’s really no one to have them do the things that they’d normally be doing. On the other hand, everyone’s home, everyone has free time, so we’ve had a lot of guys who’ve actually reached out to me or reached out to our show bookers and said, “Yeah, we’re around, feel free to have me on,” and that’s been really fun too. One of the biggest surprises in all of these interviews is that I ask the players how they’re keeping sharp and a huge number of them don’t have a basketball hoop to shoot on. This is their professional livelihood and a ton of them don’t have even a simple hoop in their driveway. With some of them, they’re in their 20s, they live in apartments and there’s just a basketball net nearby in the local park [that they’ve used pre-pandemic] — and then some are so used to having a multimillion-dollar practice facility a 10-minute drive from their house that they don’t have a hoop. So that’s been a real revelation with the interviews we have been doing — asking who’s got a hoop, who doesn’t and whether anybody would like me to send them an Amazon link.
What have you learned about yourself during this period?
I think that not knowing what’s ahead has been a real adjustment for me. I’ve lived my entire adult life via a sports calendar — they come out with a schedule for the season and you know what you’re doing for the next nine months. In a normal year, if you ask me in September “What are you doing on the third Saturday in February?” I can tell you, I can tell you exactly where I’ll be, and I can even tell you what time it would be when certain things happen. And now, that’s all just open, and even the path of how we get back to a more normal rhythm is murky. The scientists don’t know enough yet, so we don’t know enough yet, and I think figuring out that open field ahead has been an adjustment for me, for sure.
Do you think this NBA season is still salvageable?
I do think it’s salvageable, but it’s going to take more regular testing than we have right now — that’s the key, and we just don’t know when that is going to come. There seems to be [some talk of having] a small bubble of people in their own quarantine playing games against each other. And there’s talk about doing it all in one city, so the players don’t have to travel from place to place. And you’d have testing available so that you can test anybody who is coming down with it early and isolate them from everybody else. But [we need testing for everyone] — you can’t be using tests on healthy 25-year-old millionaires when there are sick people who don’t have them. So it’s all just in a holding pattern as well for the testing here to catch up to where it is in other countries, and then there are feasible [ways] to get it done — we just don’t know if it’s gonna happen in time.
What do you think about the idea of playing without fans?
I think that’s how it’s going to have to start, I don’t think there’s any question. I know in California, if you’re in L.A., the mayor has said no big crowds gathering for the entire rest of the calendar year, so even if the NBA canceled the season and restarted in November, you still couldn’t have people at a Lakers game, according to the mayor here. Of course, it would be televised, so people would still have access. Some sports lend themselves to restarting better than others. I know the golf tour is hoping to restart in June, and part of what makes that a little easier is that you have golfers who are only touching their own clubs and their own ball and you could send them out one-by-one instead of in pairs and they would be thousands of yards away from the next person. So, some sports would probably be a little easier to restart. Basketball’s a little tougher because they’re all touching the same ball. But once there’s testing, there are avenues to do it — but again, we don’t know when that’s going to be.
Esports have exploded during this time and ESPN has been airing them. Do you think that’s something that’ll continue post-pandemic?
I think so. I think there’s going to be all kinds of things that people didn’t really know that they liked before all of this happened. For some people, watching other people play video games on TV sounded crazy to them — they would never have even tried it. And now, maybe they say, “Actually, it’s kinda interesting, I feel like I’m watching the game.” So, I can see that happening, I can see a lot of the things that we’ve been kind of forced to do during this shutdown sticking with people. I hope that I do not continue to be an electrical grip because that has been a disaster, but some of the things that we’ve been doing I’d like to able to continue.
How do you feel like the future of sports media is going to be impacted by this shutdown?
You’ll [likely see a] contraction — budgets might change, things like that. I also think because it will be a while before big crowds of fans can be at sporting events, the sports media that is able to cover live events, when they do start happening again, [will be well positioned because] people are really going to be looking to those sources since they’re not going to be able to go to the games themselves.
What have you been watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve? I’ve seen a lot of tweets about Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance.
Yes, ESPN airing this Last Dance documentary has been the salvation for all sports fans. You’ve seen the ratings numbers, so you can see how everybody is desperate for it. It was funny when live sports shut down, one of the first waves of comments was, “Can ESPN move up The Last Dance?” because it was always scheduled for the NBA Finals in June — and it has been so highly anticipated that it became a lot of sports fans’ only thing to look forward to. So that’s been huge. And then, like everybody else, I’m bingeing every TV show imaginable. We’ve also started rewatching movies we like, sort of having our own re-watchable series, so we’ve watched Ex Machina, Her, Almost Famous.
What’s been you go-to news source during this period?
I used to work for The Washington Post, so I am pretty unfailingly loyal there. It’s the first thing I read when I wake up in the morning and I’m so proud of the people I used to work with, the coverage they’re doing. This is a really hard thing to get a handle on and explain, and there are a lot of different viewpoints on what we should be doing and what we are doing, so having a news source like that that I trust has been big. And then like everyone else, all my social media videos and blips and things during the day — it’s fun to have a mix of hard news and memes and everything else that follows.
Are you dusting off any old hobbies or finding any new ones?
I really like to bake, so we’ve pretty much hit the baking trifecta with my twin daughters: cookies, cupcakes, cake. Their birthday was the first week of the shutdown, and now enough kids have had enough birthdays so there’s kind of a pattern to it: people drive by and honk in their cars, that kind of thing. But my kids’ birthday was just a couple days into it and we had to cancel their birthday party and they’re young, so it was all a bit confusing. We had to explain to them, “No, you still get to turn 9, you’re just not having a birthday party.” So I made them a very big elaborate cake as a way of making up for it — definitely had to break out the baking skills there.
What cause is most important to you right now?
I did a charity project with No Kid Hungry a week or so ago. We raised money through people doing at-home golf putting — we had a little competition where everybody did their videos at home. I think No Kid Hungry is such a great cause, so to be able to do something to help get kids some food who need it, it’s crazy how many kids in this country depend on school for their most important meals of the day and now that’s just not there. There are so many parents who were regularly able to put food on their table and now can’t because they’ve lost their job; they’ve lost a lot of the ways that they’ve been able to live a normal life, so I think we need to do everything we can to get the most basic stuff, like food and medical supplies, to all of the kids in this country who are just as confused. If you think about the way all of us adults are feeling anxious and worried and bored and all of that stuff, if you’re 7 years old and you don’t have enough to eat, I just can’t imagine.
What’s atop your to-do list when this is all over?
Walk down to the beach and just keep going. I love the ocean. I moved across the country to L.A. because I love it so much, and the beaches are blocked off here in California, and that has been tough. I’ve been joking that in the James Bond movies, you know how Ursula Andress or Halle Berry are walking out of the ocean and onto the beach? When this is over, I’m going to just do that in reverse, but probably in like a giant parka. And I’m just gonna keep going.
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