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Tags: covid | fall | tv | lineup

COVID-19 Builds Suspense for the Fall TV Lineup

COVID-19 Builds Suspense for the Fall TV Lineup
(Brad Calkins/Dreamstime)

Tara Lachapelle, Bloomberg Opinion By Monday, 17 August 2020 03:15 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Somewhere in a desert, a group of young, swimsuit-clad singles have spent their summer trying to find love in the time of COVID — or at least score some cash and a little fame.

They are the latest contestants on CBS’s “Love Island,” an American take on the saucy British reality-TV show of the same name — a name that implies anything but social distancing. They’re also a long way from any islands. Season one was filmed in the tropical oasis of Fiji, but because of the virus, this latest group has instead found itself under strict quarantine in a hotel on the Las Vegas strip. The crystal waters and soothing scent of an ocean zephyr have most likely been replaced by pool water and the unmistakable sting of fresh ethanol or bleach. Nothing takes romance out of the air quite like a nasal swab, but this is what it takes to film during a public-health crisis. The show must go on.

The lengths to which ViacomCBS Inc. has gone to safely deliver new seasons of both “Love Island” and “Big Brother” to stir-crazy viewers highlight the challenges facing TV networks this year. “Love Island” premieres next week, while “Big Brother” returned to air earlier this month. “Big Brother” host Julie Chen Moonves, in a recent interview with a CBS station, described flying that show’s 16 contestants to Los Angeles so they could each isolate for weeks while being tested regularly before entering the so-called “Big Brother” house; some tested positive for COVID and were sent packing.

On the spectrum of difficulty of filming during a pandemic, reality-TV shows such as these — along with animated series — have perhaps the fewest hurdles. After all, the contestants are usually sequestered anyway. “We were the original quarantine,” as Chen Moonves put it. But scripted series often require a larger, rotating cast and crew to travel and be on set without the ability to remain in constant quarantine. This is partly why studios are struggling to get back up and running as the virus continues its spread. Sports leagues are facing similar setbacks, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 college athletic conferences postponing fall sports, including football. Indeed, it would appear that the fall television season is destined to go the way of everything else in 2020.

September traditionally marks the start of the most important TV season as children head back to school and families cozy up indoors in the evenings with a good show. Because so much of the industry focus up to this point this year has been on new streaming-video apps, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that traditional live TV remains the lifeblood of companies such as Comcast Corp.’s NBC, Fox Corp., Walt Disney Co. and ViacomCBS. The implications of a light or delayed programming season will be far-reaching for the industry, which is already grappling with an exodus of cable-TV subscribers, the evaporation of advertiser demand, a closed box office, a content drought for new streaming-video services and a legal quagmire created by the cacophony of safety issues surrounding TV and film productions.

Each year the industry showcases its fall lineup during the spring “upfront” presentations to marketers, which then reserve their advertising slots. But the uncertainty of 2020 has kept many on the sidelines waiting to see what networks come up with this summer as filming slowly begins to resume. The November U.S. presidential election at least ensures revenue from political advertisements; however, live sports broadcasts can’t promise to be the traditional big payday.

Networks are having to get creative — both in how they film and where they find content to fill any prime-time holes. The season may also have to start a bit later than usual, with new programs carefully spaced out. At Fox, the company scrapped season 17 of “So You Think You Can Dance” and made the unusual move to pad its September schedule with “L.A.’s Finest,” a detective drama that originally aired on Spectrum, a cable service owned by Charter Communications Inc. Fox also has two series that were finished before the pandemic. “Filthy Rich,” a satirical drama starring Kim Cattrall as a conservative Oprah-like figure, was supposed to arrive last fall and will now premiere Sept. 21. And “NeXt,” a psychological thriller about artificial intelligence gone rogue, headlined by John Slattery, arrives Oct. 6. Even as Fox cameras begin rolling, CEO Lachlan Murdoch recently told nonproduction employees that they’ll keep working from home for the rest of the year. Murdoch also said on an Aug. 4 earnings call that he’s confident the National Football League will come back in the fall — then again, he thought the same thing about college football. (Fox airs Thursday night and Sunday NFL games.)

The explosive hit “This Is Us” is still on NBC’s fall schedule, though it hasn’t disclosed a specific premiere date. Actress Mandy Moore told “The Today Show” that they would normally begin filming right after July 4, but as of last month they hadn’t begun yet. In a virtual roundtable held by California Governor Gavin Newsom and members of the entertainment industry in May, Moore’s “This Is Us” castmate Jon Huertas described the hyper-vigilance that would be needed on set as “daunting.”

“Emotionally, of course, we all want to get back to work,” he said. “But also the actor is going to be the least protected person on set. We can’t film with PPE on.” (PPE refers to personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.) As far as NBC’s other programs, the singing competition “The Voice” reportedly won’t be ready in time and its Monday slot is being filled by “American Ninja Warrior,” according to Deadline. Murdoch said earlier this month he “remained hopeful” that Fox’s “The Masked Singer” would still air in the fall.

A disappointing fall lineup and continuing recession will drive more consumers to ditch cable packages in favor of cheaper streaming substitutes. Still, they won’t find much consolation because those services are just as affected by the programming shortage. Netflix Inc.’s relatively full library has made it a notable exception because the company’s long production lead time has secured a bigger backlog. Companies such as AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia and Comcast’s NBC have responded by shaking up their leadership ranks and cutting staff as they redirect resources to streaming initiatives. Disney also lost its top streaming executive to TikTok.

Reduce, reuse, recycle is now the theme of the content wars. “Mulan,” which was set to be one of Disney’s biggest box-office hits of the year, is instead going to debut on the Disney+ app Sept. 4 at the same time it arrives in theaters, or at least any that have reopened by then. Disney+ subscribers, who already pay $7 a month, will have to cough up an additional $30 to stream the movie. Savings bundles reminiscent of the cable-TV era are also making a comeback, with Apple Inc. introducing one for Apple TV+ and Viacom’s CBS All Access and Showtime services.

For media giants, this fall TV season is about making lemonade from lemons. The takeaway for consumers: Slow down or there won’t be much left on your watchlist other than low-grade reality dating shows and cop dramas. Then again, the election promises to deliver plenty of gripping material on the nightly news. 

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

© Copyright 2023 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.

Networks are having to get creative in how they film and where they find content to fill prime-time holes.
covid, fall, tv, lineup
Monday, 17 August 2020 03:15 PM
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