TV is getting creative to keep shows on the air under lockdown

The studio of The One Show isn’t a big space – just two green sofas against a window in the BBC’s Broadcasting House. In front of a ring of cameras, wires and equipment, the presenters used to sit on one sofa and guests on the other, shoulder-to-shoulder for the duration of the evening magazine show. Then along came coronavirus. Even before government restrictions came into the equation, it didn’t make much sense to risk spreading coronavirus among the presenters, guests and crew.

Television has had to change drastically in the space of a matter of weeks, and with social distancing measures potentially lasting for a long time yet, it doesn’t look like things will return to normal anytime soon. The industry will be feeling the impact of coronavirus long after the disease has subsided.

The One Show stopped inviting guests to the studio, and gave the presenters a sofa each. All filmmaking for the pre-filmed segments was put on pause. Still the show kept broadcasting, cutting back more than producers ever thought possible.

Makeup was one of the first things to go – rather than having makeup artists and presenters breathing all over each other for however long it takes to apply, presenters now have to get themselves ready. To make room to spread out the green sofas, kit had to be stripped back to the bare essentials. The floor of the studio and gallery looks like that of your local supermarket – taped up to show people where to stand so they don’t get too close to each other.

“We’ve ended up with a really radically different way of doing things,” says Rob Unsworth, head of The One Show. “We thought we had cut it back to the absolute minimum that was possible to make a live show, then the restrictions came in and we cut things back further.” As the days go by, the team have learned to work around the new set up and the pre-filmed segments have been creeping back onto the show, with many presenters filming from their own homes.

Instead of having guests in the studio, they are contacted on a video-chat software of their choosing and beamed on to the big television screen in the studio. They’re using their own phones and webcams – a lot of control over technical aspects has been taken out of the producers hands, and while they still perform sound checks before things go live things can go wrong. While launching the Strictly dancing challenge, where viewers learned a dance routine and had the chance to get their clip played on national television on The Big Night In, Claudia Winkleman inexplicably couldn’t be heard. The day before Spice Girl Melanie C was supposed to be a guest on The One Show, producers were in a panic over her tweet asking for help having lost her internet connection. “Every night we just sort of cross our fingers and hope the connection is good and then react accordingly,” says Unsworth.

But technical difficulties and logistics aside, live television is actually doing relatively well. It’s not too hard to fill the schedule as the public appetite for news has grown immensely, so more news programmes have been added to the schedule to keep people up to date. The BBC has even been able to commission new shows, such as HealthCheck UK Live, which was set up in just two weeks and uses the same studio as The One Show.

“It’s become really evident that people are wanting to be entertained and to be comforted,” says Carla-Maria Lawson, head of daytime and early peak at the BBC. She adds that viewers are more accommodating than ever when it comes to technical aspects and the quality of production, and they understand the limitations of social distancing and isolation.

For live shows, it’s been a matter of finding new ways to operate, but scripted dramas and comedies are facing a new reality. Production has been halted for UK television shows. Netflix and Disney+ have had to hit pause on creating their content. There has been no other option than for TV channels to space out pre-recorded content so they don’t run out of episodes – Emmerdale and Coronation Street have cut back to three episodes a week rather than the usual six, for instance.

Neighbours, the Australian soap, has come up with its own solution for now. The show was already on a scheduled production break when coronavirus measures were put in place in the country. The two week break was stretched to three while producers scrambled to come up with a plan so that they could get back to filming.

You won’t be seeing any kissing or touching on the show for the time being. Actors are spread out for each scene and the number of people in the same environment at the same time has been cut down. Camera angles and creative editing will be used to make it look like people are close together.

“We have one of the largest studios and back lots in the Southern Hemisphere so this is possible,” says Jason Herbison, executive producer of Neighbours. “We are able to spread out and the majority of scenes will be filmed on outside sets.” The site has been divided into zones with no crossover of crew, so if there’s an outbreak they can easily trace all the people who could be impacted.

Animated series are one of the areas least affected by the lockdown – animators can work from home and voice actors can do table reads over Zoom. 20th Century Fox TV has been using a program called Toon Boom, an animation and storyboarding software, for the teams behind The Simpsons, Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers. Animation may ultimately become a fallback solution for broadcasters and streaming services.

But even though some shows are able to pick up where they left off, the future of many scripted productions remains uncertain. Broadcasters are delaying the release of many shows that were already in the final stages of production, says Tom Harrington, senior TV analyst at Enders Analysis. “They’re putting back some of the stuff a little bit later in the year so they don’t have an absolutely massive chasm that they have to fill in with reruns.”

But other shows that hadn’t started filming yet or that were in the early stages of production face an issue. Actors plan out their calendar so that they can fit in several jobs throughout the year. If filming gets pushed back, it risks running into their other jobs. Some top-billing television actors could have a build up of several shows later on in the year, meaning they’ll have to choose between them.

“The funding for that show would have been contingent on that person being in it, so that show won’t end up getting made,” says Harrington. This will hit smaller production companies the hardest. Often television shows will be funded out of their own pockets or through loans, and rely on being picked up by a broadcaster to reimburse them. With advertising revenue crumbling, any broadcasters that rely on it will be struggling for cash and so may not have the extra money to spend on smaller productions.

So many industries are facing hardship because of coronavirus and the lockdown. The irony is that even though more people than ever are watching television, the industry is having to tighten its belt. Expect to see more news, more unscripted shows and more technical difficulties in the coming months as broadcasters are forced to strip back.

Maria Mellor is a writer for WIRED. She tweets from @Maria_mellor

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