How The Coronavirus Is Changing Television Production
“The first week it was a little bit more ragtag. It was definitely more like, Wait, what are we doing here?” a Tonight Show producer told BuzzFeed News.
In just a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic shut down all of Hollywood, bringing more than 70 television productions to a complete halt. There are fears about COVID-19 spreading in a close-knit working environment like television sets where there’s abundant human contact and endless transferring of germs, even at the cost of billions of dollars and countless production jobs.
The mandated quarantine has prevented the majority of TV shows from continuing to shoot, pushing back release dates and leaving people concerned about the future of the industry, but some producers jumped into brainstorming creative solutions to create their shows. The transition to virtual television production is still evolving as the world continues to grapple with an uncertain timeline of how long people will be in quarantine because of COVID-19.
BuzzFeed News spoke to producers on popular TV shows about how they’re working behind the scenes to stay in production, make sure the content well doesn’t run dry, and keep their networks in business.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians
Khloé Kardashian and Scott Disick were scheduled to film for an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashian’s 18th season on March 16, but once the mandatory quarantine hit, executive producer Farnaz Farjam hopped on the phone with Kris Jenner and the two decided it wasn’t worth the risk to continue shooting with family members together in one place.
“I'm very confident and excited for people to see these episodes of Keeping Up during quarantine because they're actually super charming and they're super fun,” Farjam, who’s worked on the reality series since its inception in 2007, told BuzzFeed News. “They feel even more intimate, if that's possible because we're so intimate with them anyway.”
On Tuesday, March 17, iPhones were delivered to each family member so they could each continue filming on their own. Initially, they experimented with uploading their raw footage to a Google Drive and sharing what they’d been up to, but then producers decided to have runners pick up the iPhones directly from the family members’ houses once a week so that the footage would be as high resolution as possible.
Farjam said she had no concerns about the quality of content coming from Kim, Khloé, Kris, and Kylie since they’re already been producers on the show and are experienced in curating their own content. Not every reality star or celebrity could pull off filming by themselves without a lot of direction or assistance from producers or crew members, but if anyone could do it, it’s the Kardashian/Jenner family.
“I also work with development and we've tried to task certain people with self-shooting some stuff for us so that we could keep working towards things, and it's just not the same,” Farnaz said. “People just don't have the same skill sets as this family.”
They even briefly debated giving the cast professional filming cameras, but in a time like this, there isn’t a lot of room for error without the technical expertise. They ultimately decided that iPhone cameras yielded high enough quality videos and it would be easier for the family to use a tool they’re already familiar with.
“I mean, honestly, I think Kim, Khloé, and Kris, and even Kylie, and even Kendall and Scott, I think everybody has been really having fun with it. They’re already kind of producers and EPs and they know what's fun anyway, so they're just kind of owning it and they're running with it,” she said.
On a recent episode of the show’s current season, Kourtney Kardashian announced she’s taking a break from filming after 13 years of being on camera. But when asked if Kourtney was participating in the quarantine shoots, Farnaz said “Kourtney’s involved.”
“She sends us some videos,” she added. “I just think that with Kim, Khloé, Kris, and Kylie, there's just some of them that like to do it more and are better at it.”
After watching some of the footage, Farnaz said the production crew realized they’d need to conduct professional-looking interviews to ask the women questions and enhance the episodes like they normally do. They sent their director of photography and someone in charge of lighting to set up interview rooms at the houses. Both crew members, who Farnaz said “stayed super safe during the quarantine,” wore hazmat-like gear — full painter’s suits and masks — when entering each home. They sanitized all of the equipment, and the families were instructed not to enter the rooms for the following 24 hours. They also left directions on the equipment about which buttons to press and how to use the cameras while producers asked interview questions over videoconferencing. Kim even posted a behind-the-scenes video of the setup in an Instagram story.
The episode about the quarantine which will include all of this collected footage is supposed to air sometime at the end of the current season.
“I think this is going to be such a big part of people's lives and the Kardashians are going through it like everyone else,” Farnaz said. “I think people will be curious to see what they did during the quarantine, so why not continue to capture it so that you can share it with the fans?”
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
The Tonight Show crew filmed the show’s last episode in their New York City studio on March 12 without an audience before shutting down for the foreseeable future. Everyone took the weekend to regroup, some of them relocating outside of the city, but according to producer Jamie Granet-Bederman, host Jimmy Fallon didn’t want to waste any time getting back onscreen in whatever capacity he could. A team of staffers met virtually on Monday to plan for a show the following day and with the help of Nancy Juvonen — Fallon’s wife who’s also an experienced producer and co-owns the production company Flower Films with Drew Barrymore — The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon: At Home Edition premiered its first installment that Tuesday
“Jimmy said he felt like he needed to do something. He was like, ‘I don't feel right being off the air,’” Granet-Bederman told BuzzFeed News.
Fallon and Juvonen filmed the entire show by themselves on their iPhones and using Zoom at their house in Long Island. The 10-minute segments have continued to run on YouTube with NBC then airing the videos along with rerun material. Similarly to the Keeping Up With the Kardashians team, the Tonight Show producers felt Fallon was well-equipped to continue filming from home because of his range of skills beyond his role in front of the camera.
“At heart, he's a writer, he's a producer, and he could do a one-man show — obviously, he's doing it now,” Granet-Bederman said.
Fallon and Juvonen’s daughters, 6-year-old Winnie and 5-year-old Frannie, have also regularly made appearances on the show. They have played musical introductions, have handwritten title cards, and are Fallon’s audience when he’s reading his monologue. The kids were an organic addition to Fallon’s show, according to Granet-Bederman, and weren’t a part of any production plan.
“It’s just what’s happening right now. In my house, my son pops up in the back of my Zoom calls. If you have children at home with you, you can't not have your kids a part of everything,” she said. “And Jimmy and his wife are just like us. He's in a house and his kids are there and now he's dealing with homeschooling, but before homeschooling started the kids had nothing to do. So he can't be like, ‘Sorry, girls, Daddy's going to work and Mommy's helping me too’ and not include them. They were there filming all this stuff and the girls are young enough that they don't really understand.”
By the time the second episode aired, Fallon was already interviewing his first virtual guest, Lin Manuel-Miranda, on Zoom, the videoconferencing app on which he also interviewed Kerry Washington, Melissa McCarthy, John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Kim Kardashian West, and even Joe Biden, while also raising money for coronavirus relief.
“The first week it was a little bit more ragtag. It was definitely more like, Wait, what are we doing here?” Granet-Bederman said. “Now we've looped in some more production people so it's definitely a lot better planned. We have real rundowns and more meetings that actually make sense. We have planning meetings, but at the end of the day, it is still Jimmy and an iPhone and his wife and him doing interviews on Zoom. Like, there's only so much the support staff can do when it's just him at the house doing it.”
While production staff aren’t clear how long they’ll have to adapt to this new way of filming The Tonight Show, Granet-Bederman said Fallon’s presence and the At Home Edition version of the show is bringing joy to people’s screens. In a world of uncertainty, the show is giving viewers something they can rely on.
“There's so much bad and there's so much grim news everywhere you turn. It's important to know the facts and to learn about it, but there's only so much you can take, and Jimmy's providing a little bit of normalcy,” Granet-Bederman said. “That's the feedback I've gotten, that people really love that Jimmy's providing normalcy and he's also being realistic about what's going on in the world. We think, What can we do to help bring a smile to people's faces? Because that's what entertainment does.”
Desus & Mero
Showtime’s Desus & Mero is another late-night show that filmed its last episode without an audience on March 12 before taking a two-week hiatus to figure out its next steps. After producers and the hosts brainstormed what a virtual version of the show would look like, producer and writer Josh Gondelman said the team began hopping on regularly scheduled Zoom meetings to prep for their first at-home show, which aired on March 30.
“It's a weird and scary time globally, but it is very satisfying to work on the show right now and I'm very grateful to be a part of this ongoing thing that I'm really proud of,” Gondelman told BuzzFeed News.
According to Gondelman, a runner dropped off equipment to Desus and Mero’s homes, leaving it on their doorsteps in order to stay safe and follow the rules of quarantine.
“They are each a one-man crew, making sure their lighting is set up, someone walks them through the audio, and someone is directing episodes from Zoom,” he said. “Desus is in the Bronx and Mero is in New Jersey, so it's a real long-distance intimacy to make the show feel like the fast, quick, intimate show that it is. It takes people all over the place and literally no one is in the same room.”
Gondelman said they’re able to use their whole staff remotely, from producers and writers to the graphic department. The logistics of how to keep the show running from a distance has been challenging, he said, but their team jumped into problem-solving mode and has continued to adapt.
“Our postproduction team has been so amazing working with the technology needed to make this happen, and our showrunner has been so amazing, figuring out how to keep this staff in communication with each other and figuring out a workflow where every person is in a different office with different Wi-Fi set up in seven different boroughs of New York and even with people in New Jersey,” Gondelman said. “It was a real logistical challenge.”
In this new world of virtual TV production, Desus & Mero airs episodes weekly on Showtime and releases clips on YouTube, featuring interviews with Anthony Fauci, Tracee Ellis Ross, Mark Cuban, and Alicia Keys. They even snagged an interview with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, using Zoom to put it all together.
Gondelman said the production team is happy to move forward with the show virtually, giving people content at a time when they need it.
“We wanted to do things as safely as possible and still make this show happen, and I think we've been able to do that — which is really exciting and stabilizing for me, personally,” he said.
“It's a very scary and anxious time and it’s nice to have this routine. So many people are out of work and there are so many question marks amidst the public health worries, but then everyone's life has to keep going, and so I'm just overwhelmingly grateful for being able to participate in this.”
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
When it was reported March 11 that two CBS News employees had tested positive for the coronavirus and both of their buildings were affected, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee — which films in one of the buildings — immediately shut down production. Staff members took one week off before getting back to work and adjusting to a new production model, leading to the first virtual episode on March 25.
Late-night host Samantha Bee started filming episodes from the backyard of her Connecticut home with the help of her husband, Jason Jones, who’s also a producer and actor. The two are using Zoom to prep with other members of the production team and an iPhone to virtually film the TBS show.
“Sam wanted to make sure to have a show and we tried to get back on air as quickly as possible,” producer Razan Ghalayini told BuzzFeed News.
Ghalayini called the experience “a crash course in learning how to do this and think creatively,” saying that the show’s IT department has been instrumental in helping producers and talent set up their Zoom and other technology and capture footage at a high enough resolution that editors can work with.
“They’re the people making sure you get your shot and they're the people who are downloading the media with you,” Ghalayini said. “Everyone would be lost without them.”
The team also collaborates in Google Docs, writing scripts for final versions of the videos and making changes in real time.
Zoom has also been useful when interviewing talent from the comfort of their own homes. On April 15, Full Frontal aired an interview with former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, another virtual feat.
“After we booked her on the show, we sent her team a Zoom invite and then collaborated with one of her staffers to test the audio and make sure all of her settings were set up. We did the same thing with Sam. And then basically we all got on to the Zoom call at the same time,” Ghalayini said.
The show, which is currently in its fifth season on TBS, is prepared to keep filming from home into the future, according to Ghalayini, no matter how creative they need to get.
“Sam is driving and piloting her own show so that we can all practice social distancing in a seamless way,” Ghalayini said. “I think if someone was able to be there and help her it would be a lot easier, but a lot of it is falling on her shoulders. She is the superhero of this.”
When threats of COVID-19 suspended production on the 18th season of American Idol, the show had already narrowed down its contestants to their top 20 performers. On March 17, the show announced production had been working remotely since the previous week and was evaluating how to move forward. Showrunner and executive producer Trish Kinane told BuzzFeed News there was a debate: Should they postpone the season until contestants could compete with each other in person, or could American Idol pull off a version of a technologically adjusted version of the show?
“It became clear that if we did postpone, we weren't quite sure when we could come back because the virus was developing in a way that nobody could predict what was going to happen,” Kinane said.
And they didn’t want to stop the momentum of the strong ratings, interaction with viewers, and the hopes of the contestants who had already worked hard to get to this point on the show.
“I think none of us wanted to make the show under the circumstances, but it’s proved challenging, exciting, and actually it’s bringing out different things,” Kinane said. “So we’re embracing it.”
With the decision to go ahead with the live shows, which will air on Sunday nights starting April 26, came a lot of technical preparation. Kinane said in the last five to six weeks, the producers were on a mission to execute a remote live show “with all of the characteristics that are American Idol.” The executive producer said they were up for the challenge because the show has a history of integrating new technology into the series, ever since American Idol encouraged viewers to text in their votes.
Executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick told BuzzFeed News it’s been inspiring and reassuring to watch late-night TV shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live! continue to air episodes during the pandemic, but their competition show is an entirely different format.
“This is a cohesive show,” Wolflick said. “We have a rundown, the way the acts are broken out, and it’s almost identical to what we do in the studio.”
Wolflick said one of the most important components of pulling off the production was to make sure all 20 contestants had a level playing field, not only sounding their best, but having the same equipment across all of their remote locations. With everyone filming from their homes, production sent each contestant iPhones, tripods, lighting equipment, and high-quality microphones. They helped contestants set everything up over Zoom, which is also how they’ve been directing the contestants’ filming and how they communicate during dress rehearsals and performances.
Producers even toyed with the idea of somehow incorporating a virtual audience, but ultimately nixed it because of logistical complications. Even though contestants won’t continue to perform in front of large audiences like every other contestant on past seasons have, Wolflick said it’s “just a different challenge for contestants” who are still maintaining the same nerves and energy when they perform in front of the judges remotely.
“They have been practicing for their American Idol moment their whole life in these spaces, so what would have been your living room stage since the age of 4 is now where you're performing for American Idol,” Wolflick said. “So they're comfortable, but they're also trying to get the best work done. Some of them are performing in front of their families, and when the lights come on and it’s time to perform, they amp it up just like we do in the studio. It’s funny how that energy can transfer.”
Most importantly, Kinane said, the technical setup allows for natural interactions with the contestants and judges can react immediately to each performance.
“In order to be the next American Idol you've got to have a great voice, you've got to have talent. But you've also got to have resilience, hard work ethic, and charisma. There's a lot more that goes into having a hugely successful career than just having singing talent,” Kinane said. “This experience is really pushing them to show off those other skills and talents that they've got. I also think the judges would say, if you've got star quality, you've got it. It doesn't matter whether you're in your bedroom or on a stage at CBS Studios in Los Angeles. It will shine through.”
The Walking Dead
Not only did the coronavirus shut down TV shows that were already filming, but scripted programs that were in preproduction have also been brought to a halt. The writers room for AMC’s The Walking Dead had been in session for a few months when the quarantine forced everyone to stay out of the office and meet virtually over Zoom.
Consulting producer LaToya Morgan told BuzzFeed News the writers started working from home on March 13, and even though she’d much rather be working with her team in person, she’s grateful they’re all still able to come up with stories for the show’s 11th season.
“I think Zoom offers a great opportunity to check in with people visually. Seeing everyone’s faces, even if it is in those Brady Bunch boxes, you're like, ‘Okay, you're safe. We're all going to get through this together,’” Morgan told BuzzFeed News. “So it's reassuring in a sense.”
Morgan said the writers room calls usually include about six to nine people and last between four and five hours. They take breaks throughout the day and are on the Zoom calls for less time than a normal day in their actual writers room, which Morgan said can make it feel even more focused because everyone has a certain block of time to get their work done.
“Of course this is all disruptive in certain ways, but at the end of the day we're still able to do our jobs,” Morgan said. “We are tremendously fortunate and lucky that we're able to do that, and any burden or small technological glitches that we have really pale in comparison to the work that's being done by all our essential workers, our doctors, our nurses, our mail carriers. So we're able to endure.”
The Walking Dead has maintained a rabid fanbase since it first premiered in 2010, and a lot of people are also turning to postapocalyptic films and TV shows in light of the coronavirus. Morgan said she’s glad shows like The Walking Dead, even though it’s about a zombie-related pandemic, can “give people comfort at a time like this.”
“I know it's odd for that to be something like a horror show,” she said. “But it's nice to be able to escape for a little while from the news.”
The future of TV production
While some TV shows are virtually up and running and have shown that they’re capable of functioning with limited resources, unclear timelines about the coronavirus quarantine have left production crews who work in the field out of work and uncertain about the future of the industry. In a field of work that already lacks stability, with projects coming and going and crew members hopping from set to set, the coronavirus has left the state of television production especially in limbo.
“We don't know how this is going to change the industry in general, because I do think when everything goes back to normal, whenever that is, it won’t be the same exactly,” a crew member on NBC’s Chicago Fire who asked to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News. “No one knows what that’s going to entail.”
While crew members are out of jobs and scrambling to pay their bills, the public is relying on television and movies more than ever as a form of entertainment and distraction while in quarantine, a paradox that isn’t lost on those same crew members. The Chicago Fire staff member expressed concern that those very workers responsible for creating TV shows on the ground aren’t being considered or prioritized.
“Everyone’s cooped up at home watching shows and watching movies and I’m like, ‘Who do you think is making that content for you to not be bored?’” the crew member said. “And yet I feel like our country is kind of ignoring gig and freelance workers, not just in television and movies, but also in music and theater. I think everyone in the arts is kind of getting left behind and not being thought of.”
Unlike others in the entertainment industry, unemployed production crew members don’t have the luxury of working from home, keeping their benefits, and maintaining job security.
Callie Moore, a camera assistant in Atlanta, was finishing up a job on Amazon’s upcoming series The Underground Railroad when the coronavirus cut production short by just a couple of days.
“It’s scary just to know that our coverage can go away in the blink of an eye,” she said. “And there’s nothing you can do about it because you’re not working, you're not making money, you're not working enough hours in order to cover yourself, then you're just floating.”
In addition to all of the unpredictability about when production crew members can get back to work on sets, producers have more questions than answers about what this new era of television production will look like in a post-quarantine world.
The Tonight Show producer Jamie Granet-Bederman said she thinks “there are some things that are better like this and obviously there are things that are worse.”
“To tell monologue jokes to no audience is obviously very hard, but the intimacy of the interviews have been a little bit more laid back and a bit more special. It's also a time when everyone's feeling very vulnerable, everyone's in their home, so they’re more comfortable,” Granet-Bederman said. “It'll be interesting to see what changes and what stays the same after all of this.”
According to Farjam, the Keeping Up With the Kardashians producer, the way production has shifted during quarantine will be representative of a temporary moment in time instead of a permanent fixture in entertainment.
“I think for now we are just making it work and it's going to be fascinating and fun to watch, but I still think it takes a team to make things the best that they could be,” Farjam said. “We were at such a trend, in my opinion, where everyone wanted more premium content. People wanted content to look shiny, glossy, and beautiful and use prime lenses and all this stuff. Then all of a sudden, it was like, everyone's going in quarantine and everyone's going to have to videoconference in and deal with whatever kind of quality you can get. But I do think once this time is over, people are gonna start craving the beauty and the premium and the style again.”
Gondelman from Desus & Mero said this new way of working together remotely has been an exciting experiment in creativity “against terrible circumstances” and “is a testament to the flexibility and talent of the people on our team.” Virtual TV production is an effective temporary solution, the producer said, but he doesn’t envision this process being permanent because of the simple fact that people miss working alongside other people.
“Even though we're on calls with each other, everybody kind of misses being in a workplace together and getting to collaborate in person and just the little subtleties of talking with people in the same room,” Gondelman said. “Facial expressions don't always read on a 3X4 box and just the speed at which you can share ideas and build on other people's. I think people really do miss it.”
Now that a smaller staff of television crews are developing new skill sets and being innovative about how to get their shows made, Ghalayini, the Full Frontal With Samantha Bee producer, said she thinks the industry might change “in the sense that we're learning that you can make something with less.”
Whatever those potential changes will be, however, remain unclear given the overall uncertainty of how long statewide shelter-in-place and quarantines will last.
“I'm not sure if you can tell what will come in the future now, but I do think like you'll probably see some sort of new version of storytelling emerge from this,” Ghalayini said. “Because invariably what will happen is people will have to get creative in new ways, and I think when they learn new languages and develop new tools, they're not just going to put them away when we can all go outside again.”
“But we're still so early in this, we just figured out how to do Zoom,” she added. “What are we going to figure out in three weeks when we get bored with Zoom?”