The New Face of Television: How the Coronavirus Is Changing Everything

By Anjannette ConnerLast Updated Jun 19, 2020 10:38:53 AM ET
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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world changed dramatically in too many ways to count. No one could have predicted or even imagined the shelter-in-place orders that rapidly spread across the country (and even the world). With our daily lives dramatically altered, millions of people scrambled to find ways to fill long days of unexpected free time while trying to stay calm in the face of mounting fear and stress.

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The answer for many people was to lose themselves in the fictional world of television. TVs all over America suddenly got some pretty intense workouts as millions of viewers tuned in to watch all their favorite shows — but they didn’t stop there. The magic of digital streaming also gave them an opportunity to check out all the movies and TV shows they had missed over the years.

But while digital streaming (as a whole) expanded during this time, the shutdowns weren’t beneficial to networks and production studios that hadn’t finished filming their current seasons or were preparing to start filming their next seasons. Restrictions forced production companies to shut down, stemming the flow of new content.

From TV seasons cut abruptly short to previously live productions filmed entirely from stars’ homes, the TV production world experienced some significant adjustments to make it through the spring. As the world starts to reopen, one key question on viewers’ minds is what to expect from TV moving forward. Will TV productions return to business as usual by the fall, or will all the frantic changes become the new normal? Let’s take a look at what has happened so far and what the new face of television could look like moving forward.

Filmed in Front of a Live Living Room Audience

It may sound strange under ordinary circumstances, but there’s something oddly comforting about getting your daily news served with a big, heaping side of humor these days. If you’re a fan of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and similar late-night talk shows that combine comedy with current events, then you already know these shows had to dramatically shift their production methods to stay on the air during the pandemic.

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Photo Courtesy: LastWeekTonight/YouTube

The hosts are now filming the shows from home in an assortment of spaces, including their garages and their own bedrooms. The investment in technology had to be huge, so it’s reasonable to wonder if network executives and stars are interested in continuing with this type of format. In truth, the hosts have done a remarkable job creating entertaining content in stark circumstances, but they probably prefer the high-tech bells and whistles, and many elements of entertainment/talk shows are impossible to replicate in an isolated home setting.

(Not) Live from New York, It’s Saturday Night!

Saturday Night Live has been an American comedy institution since the variety show first premiered on NBC in 1975, so it’s certainly not surprising that the show’s producers saw the innovation with other late-night talk/comedy shows and wanted to be a part of it. The show halted live production in mid-March but eventually developed a plan to resume production in an altered format for streaming on the internet. The first remotely produced episode aired on April 11.

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To create the episodes, the cast members did the filming themselves in their own homes, prompting the temporary title Saturday Night Live at Home. One of the most popular clips features Brad Pitt portraying Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the NIAID. The talented cast still provided some refreshing humor during a dark time, but this change isn’t likely to stick. The physical humor of the cast playing off each other in a live format simply can’t be recreated from different locations.

National Sporting Events on Hold

It was naturally hard for people in the U.S. to understand the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. The country hadn’t experienced anything like it since the influenza pandemic of 1918, and the idea that a pandemic could happen again seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. For many, the first big attention-getter came when the NBA suspended the rest of the professional basketball season after multiple players were diagnosed with COVID-19.

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The public outcry was immediate and loud. Professional sports programming is an integral part of TV viewing for millions of Americans, with many watching several different sports throughout the year. Sporting events also rake in billions of dollars annually for owners, players and TV networks, so it was a definite wake-up call for Americans when major sports leagues shut down.

Fortunately for desperate viewers, the NBA resumes its season on July 31, and those televised games are sure to rack up some impressive viewing numbers. The WNBA will also play televised games starting in July, and the NFL plans to play according to its normal schedule in the fall. Major League Soccer is returning for a 54-match tournament that starts in July, and the NWSL starts playing games at the end of June that will be aired live for the first time in the U.S. Major League Baseball still hasn’t come to an agreement about how to proceed.

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A Postponement on an Olympic Scale

When the Olympics roll around, the event captures the attention of billions of viewers all over the world — even those who don’t normally watch sports on TV. When the 2020 International Olympics Committee was forced to postpone the 2020 Olympic Games to 2021 for the athletes’ safety, it delivered a crushing blow to sports lovers who had already endured an abruptly halted NBA season and suffered the loss (so far) of the Major League Baseball season.

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Photo Courtesy: Makaristos/Wikipedia

Throughout history, the Olympic Games have only been canceled three times prior to 2020, all due to war. In 1916, the Berlin (Germany) Olympic Games were canceled due to World War I. (The Winter Olympic Games weren’t founded until 1924.) World War II led to the cancellation of two series of Olympics, the 1940 Helsinki (Finland) Summer Games and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany) Winter Games and the 1944 London Summer Games and Cortina d’Ampezzo (Italy) Winter Games.

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Taking a Final Bow Ahead of Schedule

Like it or not, even the best shows eventually come to an end, and those final episodes are usually some of the most anticipated and watched of the show’s entire run. Some series scheduled to come to an end this spring — Modern Family after 11 years and Will & Grace after its three-year revival — were fortunate and had already filmed their final episodes when the shutdown occurred. Others were not so lucky.

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Photo Courtesy: Jimmy Kimmel Live/YouTube

The CW’s Supernatural was set to wrap up an impressive 15-season run this spring, and showrunners wisely chose to hold off on airing the last few finished episodes until the finale can be filmed. Fox’s Empire took a different approach and took all the footage that was already taped and pieced it together to create a whole new series finale for the show. Fans’ opinions about the final product varied a great deal.

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Bursting the Bubble on Some Shows

For TV shows that weren’t set to end this spring, the sudden halt in production didn’t cause quite as many problems for their storylines, although it forced some shows to finish abruptly with episodes that were never intended to be season enders. But that doesn’t mean all the shows that were finished filming will escape unscathed.

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Photo Courtesy: Richard Cartwright/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

Many shows that were on the bubble, an industry term for a show that has good — but not great — ratings, particularly in targeted demographic groups, may not survive the shutdown and all the related upheaval. If a show isn’t a clear money-maker — high ratings bring in high ad dollars — then the network probably won’t take a chance on it after losing so much money, especially if it costs a lot to make the show. That means we can expect to lose some shows a lot sooner than expected — and without series finales.

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Binge Watching at Historically High Levels

With millions of people working from home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — and millions of others unemployed and not working at all — the concept of binge watching TV has risen to a whole new level. What was once reserved for rainy days, winter nights and lazy weekends is now a full-on streaming assault that it’s a little surprising all the services can handle.

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Netflix alone increased their subscriber base by 16 million in the first quarter of 2020, a number far greater than executives ever could have predicted. The New York Times reported that 74% of American households now have at least one streaming subscription after 2.5 million new households signed up for streaming for the first time in the first quarter. As personal budgets tighten, some experts predict it will speed up the cord cutting that is hurting more expensive cable and satellite services, possibly driving them out of business.

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Timing Is Everything — Or Nothing at All

Of course, with millions of people binge watching TV and setting their own stay-at-home schedules, the idea of watching "primetime" TV has become virtually meaningless. Shows that still had episodes to air after the pandemic hit continued to air those episodes in their primetime slots, but the massive amount of binge watching that accompanied it didn’t have to follow those rules.

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However, it’s important to remember that we’ve officially entered the summer months when primetime TV is traditionally scarce. When the networks launch their scheduled fall programming — no matter what form it takes — they will resume airing shows on a traditional primetime schedule. How will viewers react to the timing restriction at that point? That’s an excellent question without a definite answer until the fall rolls around.

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Changes to Advertising in a New Viewing World

Not surprisingly, advertisements started to change very quickly after the first lockdowns occurred. Smaller local TV stations were the first to feel the pinch as both local and national advertisers pulled back on their ad spending in response to plummets in consumer spending and sharp rises in unemployment.

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Photo Courtesy: Funny Commercials/YouTube

Additionally, the pandemic changed the focus and themes of advertising. Any time there’s a natural disaster, worldwide crisis or even a positive international event like the Olympics, a lot of ads change to reflect those events. When new ads appeared on TV after the onset of the pandemic, they reflected the new somber mood of the consumer culture.

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Viewing Options Way Beyond the “Big Three”

There was a time when the "big three" in TV automatically meant ABC, CBS and NBC. Now you would have to ask a viewer if they mean networks or streaming services. Many homes in America have all three of the top streaming services: Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime. Although the pandemic has been unbelievably generous to those companies’ bottom lines, all that streaming has also prompted many viewers to dig a little deeper and explore the catalogs of other streaming services.

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Photo Courtesy: The Morning Show/Apple TV+

Some viewers are testing out entirely new services, while others are adding premium channels and features to their existing streaming plans. As a result of this expansion, streaming services like Sling TV, Apple TV+ and YouTube Premium are expanding their advertising to increase their aggressive growth even further. That could lead to an impressively long period of valuable free trials and bonus incentives.

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On the negative side, it could also mean we experience higher levels of advertisements when streaming TV shows on services that play ads. Just as major broadcast networks and local TV stations are feeling the pinch of reduced advertising, streaming services are enjoying yet another financial perk of the pandemic as brands move their advertising to these services.

Unique (and Free) Celebrity Moments

YouTube offers free video streaming to smart TVs and other devices, and many TV fans have long enjoyed browsing the site to view clips from TV shows, including talk shows featuring interviews with interesting and funny celebrities. YouTube content has undoubtedly enjoyed some increased views in the early months of 2020, but it may not all be viewers watching old clips, laughing at amateur videos or learning how to fix a leaky pipe.

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Photo Courtesy: NewYorkTheater/YouTube

With movie and TV productions on hold, celebrities are just like the rest of us — holed up at home and going more than a little stir-crazy. On the positive side, many of them are using some of their free time to burn off some creative energy and simultaneously entertain their fans by creating unique amateur videos of their own. Some go it alone, while other stars like Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski have digitally collaborated to create fun, free content designed to make you smile — at least for a little while.

Will this trend last? It’s hard to say, but we probably shouldn’t get our hopes up. It’s far more likely that popular stars with busy careers and families won’t have time to keep this side hobby going in the future — no matter how much their fans adore it.

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A Spike in Local Television Viewers

Of course, not all the changes that have already taken place in television are bad. Some changes, such as growing interest and support for local TV programming, have helped rebuild a sense of community while bolstering local stations and producers. Naturally, some of those spikes in local viewership originated with Americans tuning in to their local news for coronavirus updates, but many kept watching and discovered a new world of interesting local talk shows and other programming after the hard-hitting news played.

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Unfortunately, local programmers have already taken significant financial hits with cuts in local advertising budgets all over the country. Hopefully, increases in the number of viewers will help them bring back those advertising dollars to restore the profitability of local TV.

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Time for Some TV-Assisted Home Schooling

When school systems started shutting down around the country, many educational based companies made the move to provide free educational materials to educators, parents and students, and that included many TV networks and local TV stations. PBS, for example, began offering free tools to help with educating students at home in addition to providing programming that helped families understand the virus and how to stay safe.

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Photo Courtesy: Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision/Getty Images

PBS Kids and many other kid-friendly networks increased scheduling for educational programs. However, these networks also face the same challenge of not being able to create new content right now. Fortunately, networks like The Weather Channel with its hourly science lessons already had a useful supply of episodes ready to go.

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Out with the Old — But Maybe Not in with the New

With all the streaming companies starting to create their own original content, the timing of TV production isn’t exclusively tied to the spring and summer months anymore, but it’s still standard practice for cable and broadcast networks to focus on producing and testing new shows during "pilot season" in the spring. The shows the networks like are then promoted to advertisers during the upfronts in May.

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That means new scripted shows with great potential may never see the light of day — at least for now — replaced instead by more reality TV shows and other types of unscripted programming. After all, shows like Dancing with the Stars and American Idol don’t require as much pre-production time as scripted shows with changing sets and locations. According to an article that appeared in Forbes, this could lead to fewer scripted shows in the coming TV season, and that drop would likely cause even more cord cutting and migration to streaming, which is not good news for cable and satellite TV providers.

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ABC recently released a tentative fall lineup, and it only includes three new shows. Rival network NBC’s potential roster only has a single new show on it. To fill in any gaps, all the networks plan to rely on previously aired programming from their partner programmers under the same corporate umbrella. For ABC, that would be services like Disney+, ESPN and Hulu, for example. The shows would be new to their network viewers but not technically new to TV. The full fall schedules for Fox and The CW will consist of shows they acquired from other networks or already had ready to air themselves.

Patience Is a Virtue — Now Get Ready to Wait

All three of the main networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — plan to proceed with a schedule of new shows in the fall of 2020, but those hopeful plans are pinned on being able to start filming new episodes in the late summer. Ampere Analysis in the U.K. estimates about 60% of shows will have delayed premiere dates all the way into 2021. "Initially, we expect delays to cause gaps in scripted TV release schedules, which broadcasters and streaming players will have to fill with other content."

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The CW and Fox appear to be much less certain that resuming production in late summer will be a possibility, as they have already announced plans to hold their new fall shows' premieres until January 2021. Fortunately, the long-awaited Fox mid-season programming that was scheduled to air this spring (but didn’t) will be added to the fall schedule. At the very least, we can probably expect a delayed start of the fall TV schedules for the main networks, who are opting to proceed with summer production for now.

Tackling Production Challenges in an Uncertain World

Some networks are preparing to resume production this summer, but anything filmed for a while could look dramatically different than what viewers normally expect to see. In California, LA County has issued new guidelines for resuming filming and production in the safest way possible, and it includes directives to continue with social distancing. Employees working on sets must wear face coverings, and the actors will have to incorporate as much distance between themselves as possible — the recommendation is 8 feet.

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Any scenes requiring them to be closer than 6 feet to each other must be short and sweet, with as little talking as possible to minimize droplets spread through the air. Fighting scenes, intimate scenes and other scenes requiring close contact are discouraged — although they aren't outright prohibited.

Hair and makeup stylists will work with masks on and only work on those who can't do their own hair and makeup. If they are used at all, studio audiences will consist of staff members sitting at least 6 feet apart, with only 25% of the seating area filled. Everyone on the set will be tested frequently, and COVID-19 Compliance Officers will monitor productions to make sure everyone follows the rules.

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Obviously, these new rules for filming will dramatically change the way many of our shows look. Medical shows like Grey's Anatomy will have the advantage of looking normal in operating room scenes, where the cast already wears masks and could presumably be closer together, but you can forget about all those steamy love scenes that make up another significant part of the show. In fact, you can probably forget about love scenes on virtually any show, with the exception of The Bachelorette, which has committed to testing all the crew and contestants before quarantining in a remote location for the duration of filming.

Lights, Camera...Virus or No Virus?

The question of whether any shows will dare address the pandemic in the fall was already answered before we made it past the spring. All Rise (CBS) was the first scripted TV show to directly address the virus, and the producers did it in a filmed-from-home, virtually-created setting. The episode focused on a trial that had to be conducted virtually, but it also incorporated personal moments related to the characters.

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Other series, like Social Distance (Netflix) and Love in the Time of Corona (Freeform), were created specifically to focus on the virus and may continue to be produced well into the future. On returning shows, writers could certainly get a lot of story mileage out of COVID-19-related issues — the good and the bad of forced family closeness, the risk and stress in the medical field, the regret of bringing the virus home to your family, etc. — but it's very hard to predict whether America will be ready to hear these stories in fictional form.

Among producers and writers, opinions are mixed about addressing the pandemic in the shows that many people view as an escape from their daily lives. Some can't wait to tackle the potential storylines, but others want to avoid the topic entirely. In the end, producers may rely on the culture of their show to guide them. Friends was set in New York City but didn't address the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while the political drama The West Wing did. Both shows satisfied their respective audiences and remained successful, so it's likely that producers and writers will do their best to guess what their particular viewers want to see.

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For the short term, we can probably expect to see creative, one-time shows that are designed to be uplifting and laughter-inspiring in addition to filling airtime on network TV. Network TV movie nights disappeared from TV schedules long ago but have now made a comeback that could last for a while — at least until networks get their new season lineups ready to go.

In general, networks like shows that feature evergreen content that will still play well to audiences far into the future. According to a TV insider, "Rooting a show in the 2020 pandemic will essentially make it a period piece," and there is some risk to that. We accept fictional Americas with made-up presidents on TV, so it could be argued that incorporating the coronavirus into fictional shows isn't necessary — but that doesn't mean viewers won’t expect it.

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