COVID-Proof Formats

As entertainment commissioning pushes forward, there are certain types of formats faring better than others. Notably, ones that allow for social distancing and safety measures to be easily implemented without changing the DNA or core format beats are in good stead. There are also examples of shows that by their very nature are essentially COVID-proof; be it in how or where they’re shot, these series are set up in a manner that makes them ideal for the new production protocols.

Gogglebox, for example, watches a returning cast of diverse families and friends as they comment freely on the best and worst television of the past week—all from the comfort of their couches. “Gogglebox has been a blessing for broadcasters and audiences around the world during this pandemic,” says Nick Smith, executive VP of formats at all3media international. “It’s one of very few entertainment programs that has been able to continue production without a notable difference to viewer experience.”

It has also been able to reflect the mood of a nation—and pretty much the world. “We’ve all been sitting at home watching television, and the fast-production-turnaround nature of the show has meant a cast can discuss the changes to their lives that the coronavirus has brought forth,” Smith adds. “With Gogglebox, we’re quite used to our emotions being thrown all over the place; we’re laughing hysterically one minute while welling up with tears the next, so it’s quite natural for the cast to go from discussing a news report on the government’s latest regulations to irregular parts of a contestant’s anatomy in Naked Attraction. Entertainment shows produced before COVID-19 with big audiences can feel out of kilter with the reality of life right now.”

Married at First Sight: Couples Cam, created and produced by Kinetic Content for Lifetime in the U.S., has a similar slice-of-life appeal, this one done with a self-shot production technique. A spin-off from the hit Married at First Sight, the show follows the lives of nine fan-favorite couples from the original series, charting the highs, lows, humor and drama of the couples’ everyday domestic lives. Self-shot by the couples themselves, they all have access to their own camera equipment—using mounted cameras and diary cams—and they communicate remotely with producers to capture pivotal moments of their daily lives. Red Arrow Studios International launched the format this summer.

“The fact that Married at First Sight: Couples Cam is entirely self-shot means it is perfect for this current COVID environment,” says Nina Etspüler, group creative director at Red Arrow Studios. “The cast does not interact with a production crew in person, so all participants—both in front of and behind the camera—feel perfectly safe; national and local safety guidelines are strictly adhered to at all times. On the post-production side, the editors and story producers are also working remotely to assemble the show, allowing everyone to continue working in isolation and safely.”

The producers have found that the footage the couples capture on their own has a unique and raw quality, “providing an additional layer of emotion and at times vulnerability, which makes for compelling viewing,” she adds.

Meanwhile, Armoza Formats’ Beat the Grid game show makes use of CGI technology, and the production requires only a small studio and a minimal crew. “When the pilot was shot for the format, we had only one cameraman in the studio and around seven cameras,” explains Ori Dror, senior development executive in charge of game shows and co-development at Armoza Formats. “As the technology does most of the work to turn this into a shiny-floor-looking show, this format is an ideal fit for the current safety protocols and filming guidelines.”

Though the format was actually created before COVID-19, the show has proven to be a good fit for the current needs of the industry, says Dror. “First of all, game shows are ideal for producing during this time as they are fun for the whole family to enjoy together and are cost-effective to produce. Beat the Grid also provides an interactive element so viewers at home can play along, adding an element of connectivity to the viewing experience.”

Global Agency’s Home Quiz taps into the “home as a safe space” notion, allowing contestants to win prize money from the comfortable confines of their houses. There’s no costly studio or set décor—and no in-studio audience—and the host and players are all completely separate, making it a safe but also cost-effective proposition. “Contestants and the host don’t even need to wear masks because everyone is in their safe zones,” says Umay Ayaz, head of acquisitions at Global Agency. It also allows viewers to get a glimpse into other people’s homes, giving it personal touches, and this can be even more appealing if celebrities are playing along.

Since no one is traveling to a studio, Home Quiz players can be from various territories, giving the format the opportunity to have special editions by switching the contestants. “In one of the episodes, celebrities from the U.K., U.S. and Spain can play, and the award can be donated to the WHO [World Health Organization],” Ayaz gives as an example of the format’s flexibility. “It is not necessary to donate for COVID-19 in future episodes; it might be to UNICEF, Greenpeace, etc.”

Smith says that all3media international has seen lots of interest in the celebrity version of Gogglebox, since FOX launched the show in the U.S. in May. “The celebrity version really speeds up the casting process,” he adds. “It was cast and on the air within weeks.”

Overall, he says, there are many positive discussions about bringing the Gogglebox format into new territories. “The threat of a second wave of COVID-19 and social distancing and lockdown periods being enforced means commissioning a hit entertainment show that is proven to be producible through various countries’ pandemic regulations is a smart move.”

Production on the show carried on through the pandemic and various lockdown regulations in the U.K., Australia, Finland and Poland, and a brand-new adaptation launched in the U.S. “We have made some changes to shooting protocol during this period, however,” Smith explains. “Generally, members of the production crew are inside the cast’s home during filming, so recently it’s been produced remotely—and the viewer would never know!”