The Brave New World of TV Production

Shorter work days, no sex or fight scenes, and COVID-19 compliance officers

It’s been nigh on three months since the government put stay-at-home orders in place and we’re starting to run out of TV. OK, let’s admit that’s impossible in this day and age, but we may be running out of TV we’re willing to watch. Obviously the film and television industry shut down, with the exception of some talk shows. When will it reopen? How will the coronavirus affect the future of TV? Is there medication for scripted TV withdrawal?

I set out to find the answers to these questions, and the industry met me with more cloak and dagger avoidance than in a spy drama. TELEVISION IS TOP SECRET. Which is not indicative of its importance, but its self-importance. So, no one allowed me to quote them, but I did find out some things.

Virtual writers rooms are already happening. Writers are creating our new TV over Zoom. Governor Gavin Newsom has given the OK for film and TV production to resume on June 12th in California, but for production companies, it’s not quite so easy. They must acquire PPE and put protocols into place. All the unions must weigh in with their demands. In New York City, the U.S. epicenter of COVID-19 infections, crew members are hearing rumors about starting up in July. Executives I spoke to indicated they’ve indeed slated some shows for a July start, while others were going to hold off until September or October.

Film and television sets are crowded places. Not only is it a challenge for actors to social distance from each other on screen, but off-screen hair and make-up artists surround them. Sound crews put on their mics, and wardrobe folks help them in and out of costume. It’s an intimate workplace. Hours are long and exhausting, and people are often cooped up in small spaces. None of this is advisable right now. So what will change?

There’s talk of shorter work days (11 hours instead of 14), skeleton crews, fewer locations, more use of green screen and special effects, smaller casts and more two-person scenes. Sex scenes and fight scenes are off the table at the moment as risk of exposure is too high. Costume designers need to come up with costumes that actors can get in and out of themselves. Limited series where cast and crew can quarantine together for shorter shoots may become popular. Shooting in multiple countries seems out of the question. All of this points to fewer people being employed after months of no one working at all.

Hiring fewer people sounds like a way to save money, but with the higher insurance premiums, the cost of PPE (the hand sanitizer budget alone!), shorter work days equaling longer shoots overall, more special effects…producers are not anticipating budgets being lower. And yes, you read that right. There’s talk of having COVID-19 compliance officers on set, enforcing all the new rules for keeping people safe. As one executive pointed out, having to hire an extra person for the crew could mean having to cut a writer. To get a sense of the new protocols, reference the Chicago Film Office’s guidelines.

Then there’s the question of what do audiences who’ve been sheltering in place for months want to watch? Escapism into other worlds like Tiger King and Unorthodox have been popular. Travel and nature programming are doing well. People are binging comedies and kindness like Schitt’s Creek and The Great British Baking Show. Will there be TV about quarantining? The consensus is that no one wants to watch that. “People will be seeking comfort, things they know,” said one exec.

To a writer of original content like myself, there are few more depressing sentences to hear. This means going back to more superhero franchises and reboots and adaptations of pre-liked content. I was already superheroed out before the pandemic. The indie film world was finally making a comeback with character-driven pieces going straight to streaming. I will be so sad if that momentum is yet another thing lost because of this stupid virus.

And what will the long term effects be? What will fewer fights and less sex on screen mean? More family-friendly fare? More psychological drama? Once the TV industry gets a taste of shorter work days, will the culture shift to healthier hours? What will stick and what will go back to business as usual? That last question applies to everything. What changes in our behaviors and habits will we take with us into a post-pandemic future?

In the meanwhile, know that some networks have licensed Canadian shows for us to watch while we’re waiting for Hollywood to get through post-production. They all better be as good as Schitt’s Creek.

Mia McCullough

Mia McCullough is a playwright and filmmaker. Her plays have been seen around the country at various theatres including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Old Globe, Red Fern Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, and Chicago Dramatists. Season One of her web series The Haven is available on OTV/ www.weareo.tv and her book Transforming Reality, on the creative writing process, is available on www.lulu.com.

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