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When Fox’s The Masked Singer returns for season four on Sept. 23, the reality hit will look largely like it has in the past. Yes, there will be a new crop of celebrities and a new batch of incredibly elaborate (and ridiculous) costumes, but the coronavirus-related challenges the production team faced will largely not end up on screen.
“When you watch Masked Singer, you are not going to feel like it’s a different show. It feels like there’s an audience there,” Fox alternative boss Rob Wade tells The Hollywood Reporter.
In fact, he and the show’s production team purposefully avoided mentioning COVID-19 at all, instead hoping the show serves as an escape for viewers who want to forget about the real world for an hour. While there’s not a full studio audience for every episode, a small real-life audience will be enhanced by augmented reality technology to make it seem like a full studio.
“We managed to get some people in for reactions,” Wade says. “We managed to get audiences that we could composite. We’ve used AR technology to make it feel like there’s people there. So, when you’re watching Masked Singer you will, for all intents and purposes, feel like you’re watching exactly the same show. We had smaller groups of people in there reacting, we had the audience at home who voted, but you’re going to feel like there’s an audience in the room.”
So no, the audience will not consist of a screen of 100 people on a Zoom call, though that worked well for the third season’s live after-show produced remotely in the early days of the pandemic.
The other major changes have nothing to do with the novel coronavirus and everything to do with the way most network reality competitions switch up the format from season to season. First, the singers will compete for the Golden Mask but the judges will be competing for their own prize: the Golden Ear. After each contestant sings for the first time, judges Nicole Scherzinger, Robin Thicke, Ken Jeong and Jenny McCarthy will write their guesses on a note card. When each singer is unmasked, the judges will get a point if they managed to guess the contestant’s identity on the first try. The judge with the most points takes home their own trophy.
And second, while season three featured 18 contestants and the finalists had filmed nine performances by the time the last episode rolled around, season four will cut the number of times the contestants perform by almost half.
“We purposely reduced the amount of performances,” Wade says. “So the winner of this show will have only performed five performances by the time they finish, which gives you less opportunity to guess. So that’s one of the big changes, and I think that’s something we’ll do moving forward. We’ll try and keep audience and performance numbers down to a minimum. Not saying it’ll always be five, but we’ll try and keep it less and more.”
The way the rounds were structured in season three worked well, so season four will see the 16 competitors (but 17 celebrities, since two are competing as a duo) compete in three rounds, with the top two finishers of each group competing in a special two-hour “Super Six” episode, and the three victors from that episode will compete in the final.
That round shuffling was due to one of the biggest challenges the producers faced (aside from the spring and summer they spent coming up with proper safety protocols): Getting people to commit.
“We wanted to basically create a format in which the celebrities could come, spend a week shooting their group rounds, if they got through those come back and shoot their semifinal and their final all in one go. So, you’re basically saying to people, ‘OK, it’s essentially five days in studio,’ which makes everyone a lot more comfortable,” says Wade.
There’s a huge leap between enacting safety protocols and getting people to trust those protocols, and it did have an effect on The Masked Singer.
“I think the unwritten issue was that you can put as many safety protocols in place, but you still have to get people to turn up, whether it be cast and crew. And in this environment, very understandably people are very reticent to leave their house. So, you have to really manage that,” says Wade. “People genuinely just didn’t need necessarily to go and work. We had to persuade the celebrities to come out and persuade them there would be a safe environment, and the same thing for crew as well. You know, a lot of the crew are probably in financially different situations to celebrities, but nevertheless they still have to make that decision themselves. That was on our back to not only create a safe situation but to prove to people that that it was a safe environment, which is a slightly different thing.”
On top of those complications, The Masked Singer also lost its soundstage at CBS Television City (where Dancing With the Stars also films).
“We lost the studio we were going film in and we had to move studios. We had to really look at costume design to make them feasible within the [safety] boundaries. We had to restructure the format of the show. We had to re-look at how we made the show,” Wade says. “And then once all those logistical things were worked out, we actually just had less time to book the cast, make the costumes, make the packages. We filmed, obviously, very late. We just we just finished Sept. 14, so we were filming later than we’ve ever filmed before, which then creates challenges for marketing, as well as obviously the edit, which is currently not somewhere where I’d like to be. Those guys are going to be going through 10 weeks of very hard work.”
Ultimately, The Masked Singer faced the same challenges that many industries are facing right now when it comes to communication and collaboration.
“We work in a creative business and trying to understand the nuances of scripting and comedy and creative notes via Zoom or we keep in different rooms, it’s really challenging. It’s not natural. Humans naturally communicate in person and I think there’s a lot to be said for that,” Wade says. “Now, that being said, everyone got through it and did a great job creatively, but it just required so much more time and so much more energy. It’s quite exhausting.”
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