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