Lessons Learned in the COVID-19 Era: Awards Show Producers Sound Off on Audiences, Safety and Virtual Elements

BTS - MTV Video Music Awards - Publicity - H 2020

BTS performing during the 2020 MTV VMAs.

While the Emmys received attention for how it adapted amid the pandemic, numerous other events have been forced to adjust to a brave new blend of live and remote, masked attendees and fewer, socially-distanced people on site.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the live awards show experience, with the 2020 Oscars one of the last major U.S. trophyfests to play out in a normal fashion, with a live audience and without socially-distanced or mask-wearing stars and guests, not to mention largely free of the fear of a deadly, contagious disease hanging over the proceedings.

But just a little more than a month after Parasite was crowned best picture in the crowded Dolby Theatre, non-essential businesses began shutting down and people were urged to stay home and socially distance to slow the spread of the then-novel coronavirus, awards show producers also had to adjust to this new normal, figuring out how to hand out trophies in a way that was safe, made the audience and talent feel comfortable and still entertained viewers at home.

While the Emmys received a fair amount of attention for how they put together a partly virtual show, with winners beaming in from their homes and a few select presenters on hand with host Jimmy Kimmel in a largely empty Staples Center, that was far from the only awards show that was forced to adapt to this brave new blend of live and remote elements, masked attendees and fewer, socially-distanced people on site.

And now, despite vaccinations underway nationwide, California and New York are each reporting more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, making it unclear how long awards shows will at least partially have to rely on virtual events, with some ceremonies already rescheduling this year's shows and committing to digital proceedings.

In light of these ongoing challenges, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to producers for the 2020 MTV VMAs, E! People's Choice Awards, Billboard Music Awards and American Music Awards about how they put together their COVID-19-era productions and the lessons they learned from these unprecedented endeavors.

Safety First

All of the producers stressed "safety comes first," and that their first priority and concern was trying to protect everyone involved with putting on these shows amid a worldwide pandemic.

"That was the first thing we thought about when we were producing the [People's Choice Awards], to be safe for everybody who's participating in the show," Jen Neal, the executive vp for live events, specials and E! News at NBCUniversal Television and Streaming told THR.

For Dick Clark Productions' programming and development executive vp Mark Bracco and production executive vp Linda Gierahn, they had to quickly get up to speed on safety protocols for the novel coronavirus as the Billboard Music Awards, originally set for April 29, 2020, was rescheduled early in the pandemic, ultimately taking place in mid-October.

"It was a very fluid situation," Gierahn, who executive produced the BBMAs and American Music Awards, said of postponing the former. "As soon as we realized we'd have to move, we started working on our protocols and had engaged safety experts that we had been working with and we worked closely with state and local officials to learn everything we could about the virus. So it was definitely a challenging experience, but it was amazing how quickly we were able to pivot and do these shows safely."

Be Prepared

Gierahn added that putting on a show in the COVID-19 era added additional complications to what is already a challenging endeavor. "These shows are difficult to produce in a non-COVID world so they just became so much more challenging in terms of the logistics of keeping everyone safe and having a creative, entertaining show … [and] completely figuring out a new workflow for everything."

In particular, she and Bracco, who also executive produced the BBMAs and AMAs, remarked that they had to adapt to having fewer people on site, both an odd experience and a pandemic-necessitated set-up that required them to "do more with less," as Gierahn put it.

Both Neal and Den of Thieves' Jesse Ignjatovic, who executive produced both the People's Choice Awards and VMAs, explained that they had to be flexible and plan for even more contingencies than usual.

"There were more contingency plans and scenario planning and meetings than I think all of us in the live events world have ever experienced before," Neal said. "Really you're planning at least four shows at one time. You're scenario planning that you could produce a different variation of that show at any moment on a few hours' notice up until literally the hour before. Anything can happen. We always say, 'You're only live once.' And that's never been tested more than this year."

The VMAs were initially set to take place at Brooklyn's Barclays Center before shifting to an audience-free event at the same location and then one taking place in various locations around New York City, as the resulting show featured a mix of traditional awards ceremony elements, outdoor performances and virtual acceptance speeches, hosted by Keke Palmer in front of what appeared to be a digitally generated backdrop.

Of the progression from the Barclays Center, Ignjatovic said that his team didn't know what it would be like in the Brooklyn arena until they got in there. So it was helpful to have "that backup plan of leaning more into the XR environment, less bodies, less crew, a smaller footprint and a schedule where we could execute the performances leading up instead of everyone coming into one room at one time, which I think everyone felt could have been a little challenging."

Make Talent Feel Comfortable

One of the producers' tasks, as they learned the new safety guidelines they'd have to adhere to was communicating those to the talent participating in the show and figuring out what that meant for the stars' performances and appearances.

"We would get questions from the artists' camps of, 'Well, can I do this? Am I able to do this?' So we felt a responsibility to really understand the guidelines so we can communicate clearly to the artists' camps what we could and couldn't do in a very clear, concise manner," Bracco said.

For the performance-heavy BBMAs and AMAs, social-distancing restrictions also meant adjusting what those onstage elements looked like.

"One of the things that we are often proud of on our shows is to do huge spectacular performances with casts of thousands and pyro and people flying through the air and all of these things and we couldn't do any of that," Bracco said, adding that he found himself working with the 16-18 performers they traditionally have for each show and explaining the new rules.

"How do you work with all of these creative camps and 16-18 artists and explain this is how much we can do; we can only have this many people on stage; when you're onstage they need to be socially distanced; if it's somebody that's not singing, like a dancer, they have to wear a mask; if it's someone in a band that isn't singing backup, wear a mask; and really work in a very detailed fashion with all of the creative camps to explain, 'We want you to do our show; we want to be really creative with you about what you can do, but we also have to be very upfront with you about what we can't do, and we hope you can work with us to still put on a very unique and creative performance,'" he said. "And the great thing across all of our shows and the dozens of artists who did these shows, everyone really got it. Everyone really understood that there were limitations and they wanted to respect the safety of other artists and our crew so it really was amazing to see how all of these camps and all of these artists and us came together to understand that we could do the show, we just had to do it differently."

Sometimes making things easier for the artists also involved shifting the location of the show, as the Billboard Awards moved from its longtime Las Vegas location to Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre.

"I think we recognized that doing that in Los Angeles where so many of the artists live would give us the advantage of people not having to travel," Bracco said. "They could just get in cars and come to the theater."

Similarly, Neal and Den of Thieves' Evan Prager, who executive produced the People's Choice Awards, said the People's Choice Awards' venue of Barker Hangar allowed them to create a safe way for stars to stop by and present awards.

"You would have the biggest stars driving themselves to this awards show, because they wanted to celebrate the people and the fans, that was really important to them," Neal said. "They would literally get out of their car, go through the doors at Barker Hangar, walk onstage and present and then exit, so it was an extremely safe experience and environment for them."

Prager added that they "factored in how celebrities, winners and presenters, were going to arrive to the venue and where they could come in and how could we design a set to make it easy for them to come in, accept an award and exit safely, things like that that we hadn't necessarily had to think of in the past that we did and it worked."

He pointed out that Mandy Moore posted on Instagram after the show "how incredibly safe she felt coming into the production, which we take as a badge of honor because we put a ton of time and energy into it and we want people to feel safe and come back to the next production."

The Audience Matters

These shows all featured variations on the traditional live audience, with the Billboard Awards going with a largely empty venue, the VMAs and People's Choice Awards incorporating virtual fans and the AMAs even bringing in a small in-person audience in November.

Ignjatovic explained that the virtual audience for the VMAs provided much-needed "energy" at a time when many shows were still taking place from home.

"There weren't a lot of shows taking place in exterior locations or with any kind of audience whatsoever," he said of the August MTV event. "But we were able to bring in a virtual audience and we did some additional audience work, similar to what you're seeing in sports. I think sports has really done a nice job to keep that energy up. You want the viewers to feel like they're elevating a part of it, there's an excitement and an energy. That's what we were trying to achieve."

Neal explained that the People's Choice Awards was able to incorporate its virtual audience members into the show.

"The fans are the cornerstone of this awards show for us, they always have been, and we wanted to find a way to play into that as much as possible," she said. "We created this spectacular virtual fan experience that brought audience members into our onstage presentation. We wanted to make sure we weren't just showing the virtual experience on air as a visual and never using it. We truly wanted to stay true to having that audience participate in the show, whether it's Jennifer Lopez's children showing off and congratulating their mom or fans actually helping us to give out awards to talent."

Prager added that being able to have people from Tyler Perry's studio in Atlanta onscreen when he accepted his award was the sort of virtual audience innovation that he hoped could continue in future awards shows, even as live audiences return after the pandemic.

"I don't know if we would have tried to do something like that prior to doing these virtual audiences and virtual production," he said. "So there are things that we could incorporate in. It would just be great if those were part of the show without having to be the majority of the show."

The producers agreed that having a live audience provides an energy that's key to these shows.

"Obviously we missed having a live audience in the room," Prager said. "Just the energy that that brings to the production at home but as importantly or more importantly to the people on the stage, I think we all can't wait for that."

And Bracco and Gierahn witnessed the benefits of having even a small live audience as they brought in groups of socially-distanced people in pods from the same families to the balcony of the Microsoft Theater for the American Music Awards.

"In a venue like the Microsoft that holds thousands of people, just having 60 people there in the balcony, having some applause and some energy, made a big difference for the artists," Bracco said. "They all sort of looked up at them and were like, 'Thanks so much!'"

In terms of how they determined they could invite those guests, Gierahn explained, "On every show, we've been working closely with county health departments, so we just figured with them what we felt like was a safe number and it continued to change but that's what we ended up with and what we felt like was the right amount of people to keep everybody safe."

Practice Makes Perfect

For the Dick Clark Productions and Den of Thieves teams, working on multiple awards shows helped them better figure out how to make an entertaining event while keeping people safe, as they became more familiar with pandemic procedures and guidelines.

"Each show we built upon the last one and by the time we got to the AMAs, we had a little more confidence of, 'We know we can do these shows safely and here's what the process looks like.' So we were able to fine-tune some things and the testing and the sanitization and schedule changes because of social distancing. All of that was hard the first time we had to do it, but we realized we can make these adjustments, and it just got a little bit better each show," Gierahn said.

Ignjatovic explained that Den of Thieves' experience on the VMAs provided multiple, specific lessons that they could apply to the People's Choice Awards.

"We learned that we could bring presenters into a room to do the awards sequences. We could make the talent feel safe. That led nicely into the People's Choice Awards where we had a lot of awards cycles and talent and Icon Award moments and creating moments where we could execute that and the talent felt very safe — that's first and foremost, we wanted everyone to feel safe in the environment, and on that we had a lot of learning that helped us going into the People's Choice Awards," he said. "Also the technology and use of bringing in the live virtual audience, which extended what we did on the VMAs. We had a much larger live virtual audience that was literally participating in the show. I mean they were announcing winners. A virtual audience wasn't the same in August as what it was in November. To have that audience be able to participate live and in the room, the talent was feeling that energy and responding to it. That was a great evolution of what we were trying to do with audience energy."

And he hopes that beyond the pandemic he and his team can "find opportunities to experiment, to try things that maybe we hadn't done before. And on both of those shows we felt like some of those elements did that."

(BBMAs and AMAs producer Dick Clark Productions is a division of MRC, which is a co-owner of The Hollywood Reporter through a joint venture with Penske Media titled P-MRC.)