To watch scripted television in recent weeks is to believe Hollywood has steamrolled through the coronavirus pandemic. Fall shows, it would seem, are chronicling the grim interruptions to Americans’ lives without suffering any of their own.
But the up-to-the-minute plotlines gild what insiders say has been a very tumultuous time. Covid-19 and its restrictions have been taking a heavy toll on scripted television, forcing many productions to pause, budgets to rise, episode counts to be slashed and even some shows to be canceled outright. Much like college football, an attempted projection of normalcy conceals the chaos beneath.
“Every one of our shows in production has been touched in some way by quarantine,” said creator Greg Berlanti, who has some 20 active series across broadcast networks and streaming, including “Riverdale” on the CW, “You” on Netflix and this week’s “The Flight Attendant” on HBO Max. “You have to commend everyone who’s making things happen in really difficult times. But that doesn’t mean these shows aren’t being affected.”
Last week, the news grew grimmer as, amid a devastating rise in cases, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a month-long stay-at-home order from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. across the state. On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) declared some parts of his state restrictive “orange zones,” which forces closures of indoor dining and gyms and could affect productions; if areas are declared red zones, matters would become even more restrictive. The Newsom order exempted Hollywood crew members as essential workers — for now. With positivity surging and lockdowns tightening, a bleakness has filled the near-term production forecast.
For entertainment companies, the costs of covid-19 are great, interfering with their ability to refill a depleted pantry after six months of non-activity.
For consumers, the effect — delays in new content they’re eagerly awaiting while being shut in at home — could be even greater.
“It’s the equivalent of a restaurant packed with hungry customers and suddenly the kitchen has a grease fire,” said a producer who asked not to be identified because they didn’t want to appear pessimistic to working colleagues.
Television production is not something most viewers regularly think about, in part because it takes a form very different from the polished finished product. It’s the stuff of crews toting equipment around production hubs like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Vancouver, of an assistant director coordinating actors’ and extras’ schedules with locations and shooting times. But the smooth functioning of these mobile workplaces is how Americans are entertained — and, lately, how they can stay at home for months on end without causing harm to their family members.
Unlike films, which often work on years-long timelines, scripted TV thinks in weeks and months. That’s a particular problem amid the sudden delays of a contagious disease.
In some ways, the systems put in place by studios — working closely with a consortium of Hollywood groups such as the Directors Guild and the performer-centric SAG-AFTRA in a 60-page “Return To Work Agreement” — have been surprisingly effective. Over the summer, many executives privately doubted that much new content could be produced before 2021. But prime-time scripted shows are not only being shot but making it to air. In addition to “Black-ish,” ABC has gotten new episodes of “The Conners” and “The Good Doctor” to viewers; CBS has done the same with “Young Sheldon,” “FBI: Most Wanted” and several shows in its “NCIS” franchise, among others.
Streaming, less time-bound than the broadcast networks, has managed to finish episodes during the past few months. HBO Max’s “The Flight Attendant,” shot partly during the pandemic, debuts this week. So do new episodes of Tyler Perry’s “Ruthless” on BET Plus, the channel’s streaming service; they were shot in a quarantine bubble at Perry’s Atlanta studio.
Most non-bubble shows are being produced under a system of “zones,” lettered A to D, on a given set. Zone A, composed of actors, is the most protected. Zone C, on the other hand, is for people who regularly work more than six feet from all other crew members and because they are behind the camera can more easily wear masks. Mandatory coronavirus “Compliance Officers” oversee all the zones.
Testing is conducted according to this hierarchical system. All full-time people in Zone A must be tested at least three times per week. Zone B requires at least one test per week; Zone C members are tested biweekly. Zone D are people who can work remotely, like an editor, and don’t require regular testing.
Writers’ rooms, meanwhile, remain virtual on nearly every show, a major shift from the days when dozens of creative people would gather in a small space for hours to hash out ideas.
But despite the nuanced procedures, the expenses have been high and the pauses many. Even the shows that have made it to air, such as “Young Sheldon,” have at times had to shut down due to positive testing. And many others that haven’t debuted new seasons — from “The Witcher” on Netflix to “The Resident” on Fox to “Mythic Quest” on Apple TV Plus — have all had to pause as crew members tested positive, potentially delaying the shows’ release.
While there have been no known cases of a fatal illness on a Hollywood set since production resumed, other costs have been great. Shutdowns are generally pricey, since they require adding days and retaining crew. Thousands of tests and the compliance officers compound the expense.
“The ‘10-20 percent’ thing is real,” said Nathan Ross, a producer of film and television who counts “Big Little Lies” among his credits, referring to Hollywood’s standard assumed number of additional budgetary expense on a covid-era shoot. “You either have a company that’s willing to pay for it or you have to make cuts.”
CBS has already imposed a broad policy as part of this austerity: The network has said it will make fewer episodes this season for many of its shows, in some cases going from the industry-standard 22 down to 16. If it takes more time and money to produce each episode, one solution is simply to make fewer — even if it means advertising revenue will go down with it.
Other companies have scrapped shows outright. Netflix recently announced it would cancel a slew of series, such as wrestling-favorite “Glow” and the young-adult “The Society,” because of covid-19. Showtime shelved the critically acclaimed Kirsten Dunst capitalist satire “On Becoming a God In Central Florida” for similar reasons.
“A lot of smaller shows will get culled because streamers and cable companies look at these budgets and say, ‘In a time of covid, why bother?’ ” said the veteran writer Mark Heyman, who created the CBS All Access show “Strange Angel.”
To avoid these issues, some producers say they have sought to flee for safer international locations where the odds of positive tests and shutdowns are lower.
“Because I think the winter will be more brutal than spring or summer, the scramble right now is to find bubbles — places that are safer and won’t get delayed,” said Ross, the “Big Little Lies” producer.
Even then, though, that means shooting in cities that don’t look like the places where a scene is set. Ross and his business partner, the director Jean-Marc Vallée, plan to shoot a new movie about John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Universal Pictures later this year. But the film requires shooting in London, New York and Los Angeles — three cities hit hard by the virus and all under some form of lockdown. Moving it could be difficult. But so could waiting.
It’s also not clear that decamping works. As the virus spread over the summer, many producers decided to move their shows from U.S. cities to Vancouver, hoping to take advantage of Canada’s lower positivity rates. The city was soon hit by a testing shortage, forcing some shows to pause anyway.
And some productions have tried to persist even when those in Zone A have been affected. Sony Pictures Television, which produces “The Good Doctor” for ABC, did not suspend production in Vancouver when the actor Richard Schiff and his wife, Sheila Kelley, who also stars in the show, were recently diagnosed with covid-19, with the former hospitalized; instead producers rearranged scenes to shoot with other actors. A representative for Sony declined to comment for this story.
The “Return To Work Agreement” does not specify the testing threshold that triggers a shutdown, saying only that producers must “follow CDC guidelines in effect at the time or the guidelines of the local governmental authority in effect at the time, whichever is stricter.”
But the decision to push through even when core cast members have been quarantined highlights the urgency Hollywood feels in rebounding from a pandemic that has eroded much of 2020. It also raises questions about the wisdom of moving forward in cases of high-profile positive tests.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer and general counsel for SAG-AFTRA, said the group wanted to stay away from automatic triggers of production stoppages.
“Our epidemiology advisers didn’t recommend we do that,” he said. “Each set and production is unique. Three positive tests from a group of four that is working in Zone B away from everyone else is different than one positive where someone is working closely with a lot of other people. Producers as a rule have been good about it.”
Still, the group believes it has the right, under federal labor law, to stop members from working if it thinks conditions have become unsafe. Crabtree-Ireland said that has not happened in cases of positive testing but that there have been scattered instances in which SAG-AFTRA was told of lax mask and social distancing enforcement and told members not to work, effectively forcing a shutdown.
“But overall,” he added, “the fact there have not been a huge number of positive tests reflects the fact that our protocols are working.”
Some of the hurdles have been overcome by innovations in remote production.
OpenReel, a New York-based company whose app allows cameras to be controlled remotely and feeds to be uploaded directly to the cloud, says it has seen explosive growth during lockdowns. A number of productions, particularly talk shows, use the service to allow work to continue while avoiding knotty in-person logistics.
“The way we like to think of it is that we’ve saved a lot of jobs of people who would not be able to execute on their initiatives otherwise,” said Lee Firestone, OpenReel’s chief executive. Without a program like OpenReel, a remote director might not be able to see footage or make adjustments in real time, for instance. And a subject might have to spend a lot of time uploading content — or even sending a device physically.
The firm has quickly evolved the app in recent months. OpenReel now allows for four cameras to shoot simultaneously, enabling more locations and angles, after an earlier iteration of the app coordinated only a maximum of two. It’s one reason talk shows from stars’ basements and garages over the course of the pandemic have grown to look less like your Uncle Irving’s homemade video.
But in the case of many scripted shows, with their high-end cameras requiring a lot of mobility and expertise, Firestone acknowledges even a sophisticated app like OpenReel can be of limited use.
Some Hollywood veterans are trying to see the upside of limitations. They note that the reduction in annual episodes is a welcome change, with broadcast networks now shifting to a more quality-over-quantity approach favored by the streamers.
Berlanti, the prolific creator, acknowledges that shooting TV has always required a lot of adaptiveness. But with crews now abruptly sidelined, not knowing who on a television crew will be available on a given day requires flexibility. “We sometimes don’t know on Monday what we can shoot on Wednesday,” he said.
Yet he, too, sees some silver linings.
“You used to drop a scene from a script, and a studio would get mad or ask a lot of questions,” he said. “Now they’re just happy you completed the episode.”