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On Saturday night, a pretaped LeBron James emceed the multi-network event Graduate Together from a tricked-out (and sterile) studio. The hourlong special, a celebration of the 2020 graduates forced to go without in-person ceremonies during the COVID-19 pandemic, included a similarly glossy studio performance from Alicia Keys and a high-res keynote from former President Barack Obama.
Though a far cry from the TV events that viewers were accustomed to seeing before nearly all traditional production shut down in March, the event better resembled pre-COVID TV than the remote specials cobbled together in the early weeks of lockdown. Production value is on the rise, and unscripted producers are prepping for even bigger improvements in the months ahead.
“We were able to get LeBron in a sanitized studio, all by himself, with everyone else behind glass,” says Ian Stewart of Graduate Together producers Done+Dusted. “With the virtual studios that we’re starting to use, it does actually look like you are moving through the space,” adds Done+Dusted’s Katy Mullan, who also produced both iterations of The Disney Family Singalong on ABC. “These things are developing exponentially in a matter of weeks. You’re seeing a peppering of production values.”
Audience appetite for self-filmed content, as it initially rolled out, is starting to drop off. There is evidence of Zoom fatigue in both ratings and commissions. In a nationally representative Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll conducted from May 7 to May 9, some 36 percent of respondents expressed interest in viewing a remote-filmed TV show, while 48 percent of those surveyed had little interest in such a project.
So the unscripted community is now focused on how to move the chains so that each new effort looks more elevated than the ones that came before it. That includes not just sanitized studios for solo tapings and nicer equipment for remote filming but, further down the line, sealed environments for filming multiple parties.
Graduate Together was not the weekend’s only starry tribute to the class of 2020. Instagram and Facebook partnered for Friday’s special Graduation 2020, toplined by Oprah Winfrey and Miley Cyrus. And while the program had to rely on dozens of self-filmed dispatches, few looked alike.
“I think all of us were looking for that magic answer to ‘What is the perfect technical setup for remote capture?'” says producer Rhett Bachner of B17 Entertainment. “But every situation is different, and there’s no perfect answer. I think the content is improving because we’re finding ways to improve on processes.”
Processes have largely improved as talent have become accustomed to the new way of making content in the time of COVID-19. Sanitized filming kits, often complete with lighting equipment, have upped production value, and talent are becoming more vocal about how they want to see themselves positioned after weeks of dim computer shots at odd angles. “This approach is just so untraditional,” says B17’s Brien Meagher. “So much can depend on whether or not the talent has good Wi-Fi or whether they want to shoot inside or outside of their house.”
Specials are likely to be a constant as the crisis progresses, but orders for quarantine-friendly series continue to come through. Bachner and Meagher recently launched the YouTube series Celebrity Substitute, where Karlie Kloss, Ken Jeong and Janelle Monáe all teach real curricula for children who are likely losing interest in Zoom classes or their parents as tutors.
“A lot of our stuff is always being made under constraints,” says CAA alternative agent Rosanna Billow, whose department has closed 71 deals and made pacts for 55 new series since the pandemic started. “I think everybody assumes, when we have the fortune of resuming traditional production, that unscripted shows are going to be the first ones out.”
Some less-COVID-specific unscripted programs have already been sold and premiered since the pandemic started. Fox recently approached reality veteran Stephen Lambert about a U.S. version of the popular U.K. format Gogglebox. The long-running Channel 4 series, which chronicles armchair critics commenting on the week in television, promptly shifted from on-site production to remote — and has been breaking its own ratings records since stay-at-home orders went into effect.
The U.S. version, with a shift from the everyman to Fox (and other) talent, debuted May 7 as Celebrity Watch Party. Like many unscripted deals coming through now, it was sold with plans in place for several hypothetical versions: the current one, under the strict COVID-19 regulations; another for under loosened restrictions; and a third for when things are possibly normal again. Celebrity Watch Party, in success, is designed to evolve. After all, no one is kidding themselves that even the improved production capabilities will make sense once the traditional ones are within reach.
“Networks and platforms don’t want a ton of lower production shows stockpiled on the shelves,” says Alix Hartley, another CAA alternative agent. “Everyone is nervously optimistic that production is going to get going by fall for anything that doesn’t have an in-studio audience.”
Lambert says fall is “realistic,” not optimistic, for at least one of his series. The producer saw his Netflix hit The Circle renewed for two additional seasons since shelter-in-place orders began, and his Studio Lambert is aggressively brainstorming different ways to ensure the series — a sort of self-isolated spin on Big Brother with an aggressive social media component — can tape regardless of what restrictions are in place in a few months.
“We’re creating a huge fortress, a sort of sealed environment where we’ll be able to control who comes in,” says Lambert. “Obviously the subjects are already isolated, so it suits what’s going on, but we’ll have contestants tested beforehand and we’re discussing having them quarantined after they arrive in England.”
Lambert says he thinks that the basic groundwork is in place for a relatively normal production. It’s the countless variables — catering, days off for crew, quarantine times — that now need vetting. So his team is in talks with health and safety advisers in the U.S. and the U.K. about how to limit risk.
“You can create a closed environment,” says Lambert, “but you have to make sure you’re plugging all of the holes.”
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