“Well,” host Ryan Seacrest interrupted from another screen, sitting nearly 2,000 miles away at a gray desk in his California home, “We haven’t pulled it off just yet.”
With television one of the many industries in upheaval because of the covid-19 pandemic, “American Idol” became the first reality competition show to air a completely remote episode. Countless Hollywood productions have shuttered over the past two months, and competition series face unique challenges as they strategize how to resume filming — or determine if it’s a realistic possibility to continue.
NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” briefly filmed auditions without an audience and then stopped, though those episodes will air at the end of May as producers figure out how to go forward. CBS’s “Survivor” shut down before production started. “Amazing Race,” which has another season filmed in advance that will debut later this year, sent everyone home. Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” was suspended.
An ABC executive told Deadline that they’re mulling an edition of what they call “Bachelor in Quarantine.” (A representative from Warner Bros., which produces the show, declined to elaborate on the show’s plans.) On cable, Paramount Network’s “Ink Master: Turf War” scrapped the season finale and gave a cash prize to the final three contestants, who presented their last tattoos on a YouTube special.
Even more challenges arose for two of the country’s most popular series, “American Idol” and “The Voice”; the singing competitions switch from prerecorded episodes to live shows about this time of year. On “Idol,” in its third season on ABC after 14 years on Fox, the contestants were in Los Angeles in mid-March working with vocal coaches in preparation for the Top 20 episode. When it became apparent that the spread of the novel coronavirus was starting to disrupt travel, producers sent the contestants home and mulled next steps.
They had many ideas: If things improved, maybe they could bring back the singers and film without an audience — they even started getting excited about the annual Disney song-theme show, where they could possibly have a virtual crowd filled with Disney characters. Then as the pandemic worsened, they thought about postponing the season indefinitely. But that didn’t feel right.
“This crisis is obviously unprecedented — it could be months, it could be next year, or maybe we could never pick up the live shows. And that didn’t seem fair to these kids who worked really hard,” said Trish Kinane, “Idol” showrunner and production company Fremantle’s president of entertainment programming. “We felt, for their sake, we should continue and crown the next ‘American Idol.’ ”
So producers started wading through a complex logistical web as they decided to film the rest of the season remotely. They sanitized and shipped identical boxes of recording equipment to each contestant, including iPhones and a ring light. Engineers were dispatched to their homes to ensure various Internet connections could handle broadcast TV-caliber production. Producers set up Zoom meetings with contestants to help them create the best space to perform, and advised on lighting and camera angles. Singers worked closely with the musical director and band.
“This is a competition, so everyone needs to have a level playing field, and everyone needs to sound high quality,” said “Idol” executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick. With the singers scattered across North America and producers and crew members with control stations set up in their homes, the show was put together from 25 locations. “It really took a village to get this thing off the ground.”
Over two hours on Sunday’s episode, the 20 finalists showed off their vocal skills amid a variety of setups, including dens, backyards and garages. Some strung up glowing lights around porches while others hung pastel tapestries on their walls. Multiple contestants enlisted backup singers, while others played piano and guitar. Lauren Spencer-Smith, 16, boasted the most envy-inducing background, as she belted out Jessie J’s “Mamma Knows Best” in front of a stunning lake and mountain view on Vancouver Island.
Contestants and the judges — Bryan, Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, who inexplicably wore a bulky hand sanitizer costume — found there were unexpected advantages. As Bryan noted with Spencer-Smith, without extensive production, they could suddenly hear more nuance in her voice. But there were also adjustments: Olivia Ximines, 16, sang Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” from her parents’ house and admitted that the adrenaline wasn’t quite the same as performing onstage: “When I’m in my living room, I really have to pump myself up.”
Although “Idol” singers are used to feeding off the energy of a big crowd, Kinane said that contestants shouldn’t be concerned. “The judges feel that if you’ve got star quality, you’ve got it — it shines through whether you’re doing it from your living room or the big stage,” she said.
Meanwhile, Season 18 of “The Voice” also had to quickly change gears midseason. The show aired a “Road to the Live Shows” special Monday night, with another new episode scheduled to air May 4. While producers have still not released a specific plan, coach Blake Shelton said this month on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” that the rest of the season “is going to be nuts.”
“We’re going to have to do ‘The Voice’ in some fashion like this, because obviously, you know, the live shows are coming up here in just a matter of weeks,” Shelton said, speaking via webcam while his girlfriend, singer Gwen Stefani, gave him a haircut. “It’s going to be crazy. We’re going to have to coach like this.”
“Do you have a plan?” Fallon asked.
“Yeah, a little bit. I think they do … they’re going to tell me when to be at the computer,” Shelton said, adding that he would still help the contestants remotely.
Both “Idol” and “The Voice” will have to alter the way singers are eliminated, too; next Sunday, “Idol” will go from 20 contestants to the Top 10. The bigger issue with that, Kinane said, is that for the season finale on May 17, viewers will vote in real time and Seacrest will share the final results live from his home at the end of the episode.
“That’s going to be interesting,” Kinane said. “Let’s hope the Internet gods are with us.”