In an era in which social distancing is more or less the law of the global land, television built around the social engagement of a crowded audience has needed to be reimagined with innovations to keep the audiences at home engaged and entertained. The coronavirus has presented untold challenges for the companies that make studio show formats, but they have found ways to meet them—even discovering new ways of doing business that could be here to stay.
“Studio shows have been affected more than [anything] because of necessary measures of closing most studios,” says James Townley, global head of creative networks at Endemol Shine Group. “But we are starting to see these now opening again, and our producers are coming up with inspirational creative solutions to get back into the studio.” (Operación Triunfo in Spain and Sunday Brunch in the U.K., which had been recording remotely in the presenters’ homes, are now back in studio.)
Townley adds: “It’s interesting how different territories have different protocols. For example, in Sweden, production never really stopped, meanwhile Australia fully embraced the necessary health and safety protocols and included these as part of the creative editorial within MasterChef.”
As Diana Buddingh, director of global content and productions at ITV Studios, says, “the show must go on, and we are doing everything we can to help keep entertainment on air.” With its broadcast partners, ITV Studios early on focused on adapting to the new rules that were brought about by COVID-19. This put them in a good position during the height of the lockdowns—and now, as restrictions start to ease. “We have been able to keep producing our studio shows across the globe such as The Voice, The Chase and 5 Gold Rings, and many more. We never stopped.”
Taking into account local measures and guidelines—that vary country by country and day by day—ITV Studios has been nimbly adapting its production processes. “We record studio shows now without an audience present,” says Buddingh. “For example, at The Voice, we make use of some amazing technology features by showing the audience straight from their home onto a huge LED screen behind the stage. This mimics the feeling of having the audience present in the studio and makes it as close as we can currently get to ‘normal atmosphere.’”
Technology has proven vital in helping to re-create the experience of watching a studio show in more ordinary times. “Studio spaces have been adapted to the new working model, from Perspex screens in control rooms through to one-way systems being set up in studio corridors,” explains Jane Atkinson, senior VP of global production at Fremantle. “Core skilled teams have been established, paring back the amount of people in the studio with the rest of the teams working from home via webcams or in socially distanced offices.”
At the top of the list of priorities for those behind studio shows is the health and safety of the crew and talent that make them possible. Remote production, enabled by technology and the overall keenness of all involved parties, has been essential.
“We’ve seen talent having to do a bit more than usual; they’ve had to do lots themselves when we haven’t been able to staff to the usual levels, and often, we’ve been filming in their houses,” says Endemol Shine’s Townley. “We have protocols where producers set up all the tech and advise the talent, but there is still far more of a requirement and expectation that is much more than just switching the camera on.”
While Townley acknowledges that audiences have been understanding of the slightly lower production quality, Fremantle’s Atkinson believes that that understanding could be wearing thin. “The short-lived period where self-shot content was the most program makers could achieve due to lockdown conditions has now passed,” she says. “There is an expectation that audiences want to see light-hearted and escapist content on the same scale that they were watching before lockdown began.”
“After 12 weeks or more of worldwide lockdowns, Fremantle is resuming productions on some of our biggest formats, such as Got Talent, Family Feud and X Factor in studios or theaters in multiple territories,” says Atkinson. “Of course aspects of how we produce, and what it looks like will be adapted, but the essence of the shows will remain faithful to the formats our audiences know and love. In a world that is facing unprecedented challenges, this ability to provide much-needed entertainment that feels reassuringly familiar will be key.”
At ITV Studios, for example, there have been inventive alterations suited for different international versions of The Voice, which currently can’t allow families in the studio or a crowd in the audience. “In the Netherlands for The Voice Kids finale, a special COVID-19-proof skybox was built for the families of the young talents to cheer them on,” said Buddingh. “And in several countries (Ukraine, France, Germany), the audience that could not be present in the studio was visible on giant LED screens behind the stage, or the show was held at an external location so people could be present but could stay in their own car.”
Endemol Shine’s Townley explains, “We’ve found solutions like having virtual audiences in the finales of Big Brother in Italy, Israel, Germany, Sweden and Australia, which were all mid-production when the virus hit and successfully completed their series by following guidelines. In Italy, we had the host in a completely different city, as he was isolated in Milan. In MasterChef Spain, they brought the production outside to a far safer environment.”
Will any of the changes brought about by the coronavirus remain for the long run? “I certainly hope the communication and collaboration are here to stay; even in the industry as a whole this pandemic has brought people together,” says Townley, who adds, “Everyone loves a challenge and there are definitely learnings that make us rebalance and reset. It’s fascinating to see the solutions found along the way and how robust the industry and those within it are proving to be.”