How Broadcast TV's Response to COVID-19 Could Give Some Comedies and Dramas an Awards Boost

How Broadcast TV's Response to COVID-19
Courtesy of NBC; Courtesy of ABC; Trae Patton/NBC; Erik Voake/CBS; ABC/Eric McCandless.

Typically the ugly stepsiblings during awards season, some broadcast series have earned new relevance by incorporating the recent events of the pandemic into their storylines.

The year 2020 accelerated plenty of uncomfortable trends in Hollywood: the shift from theatrical windows, the consolidation of corporate attention on streaming platforms and, perhaps most immutably, the steep decline of broadcast television.

Sure, the death knell of the Big Four seems like it's been ringing for a decade — but never as loudly as it has during the past 12 months. COVID-19 kneecapped pilot season, prompting diminished comedy and drama series loads for networks already more interested in reality, and NBC and ABC no longer even have dedicated executives. Instead, they're overseen as smaller, decidedly less sexy parts of larger portfolios. But the pandemic, which hastened all of this, could also bring a silver lining. Broadcast series, long the ugly stepsiblings of awards season, were among the few projects to quickly respond to the pandemic in storylines. And timeliness can be one very fortuitous path to voters' hearts.

Evidence of the surreal year has been all over primetime since October. Once the delayed fall season finally made it on air, the broadcast lineup highlighted narratives like those that viewers were seeing on the news. On ABC, The Conners focused on the financial strain of lockdown on the working class, and The Good Doctor and Grey's Anatomy dramatized the pandemic's toll on hospitals — the latter going so far as to give Ellen Pompeo's character a serious case of the virus. CBS legal drama All Rise, which pulled off a remotely filmed Zoom episode in May, tackled America's ongoing racial reckoning and COVID-era courtrooms when the Simone Missick vehicle returned in November. NBC's Superstore lampooned toilet paper shortages and showcased the less-than-funny stress on essential workers, while This Is Us (ever committed to making its audience weep) grappled with social distancing and the May killing of George Floyd. And when Fox's duo of 9-1-1 and 9-1-1: Lone Star drop new episodes in January, both look to be COVID-heavy.

This Is Us might make the most obvious case for awards attention. When it premiered in 2016, it was heralded as broadcast's last prestige drama. Thus far, it's delivered on that potential — commercially and critically. There have been 32 Emmy nominations to date, including a win for lead Sterling K. Brown and two ensemble trophies from the SAG Awards, in 2018 and 2019. And while a comeback after a 2020 without a best drama mention at any major awards show is unlikely, it's hardly impossible.

The voters might also have a desire to acknowledge (if not outright reward) those who braved going back to set last summer. It was broadcast series, such as ABC comedy Black-ish, that were among the first to get back into production under the tight restrictions — a risky endeavor with a steep learning curve. But those risks put a lot of Hollywood, both actors and crews, back to work. Considering a voting body like SAG-AFTRA has been one of the most impacted by the pandemic — the unemployment rate among performing artists, 27.4 percent, only trailed that of those in food service in May 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — March's SAG Awards could be swayed by broadcast's ability to rally.

There may be fewer options from which to choose, but Hollywood would be prudent not to shut broadcast out from the prestige arena. No other TV platform has shown the ability to reflect the world on such a quick turnaround and across multiple titles. Awards may not translate to advertisers, but they do bring relevance — and that is one currency that anybody hoping to weather this unpredictable decade in entertainment should be hoarding.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.