Factual Production in the Age of the Coronavirus

As New York City moved into Coronavirus shutdown this weekend, I wondered about the effects of the increasingly restrictive response to the epidemic on program production and delivery schedules.

NBA Started It

  • When the NBA cancelled its season, most of the world’s leading Sports franchises followed.
  • Next came Late Night Talk shows with their live audiences and large studio crews.
  • Live music performances, and then production of scripted film and TV series came next.

News

  • National broadcast and cable News programs are now feeling the pressure.
  • Field reporters are risking exposure out on their beats.
  • And then they risk cross-infection as they gather in sizable studio presentation teams.

Moving to Unscripted…

  • The two key factors that shape the response of the factual television business are:
    • Air travel, and
    • Limits on the size of gatherings.

Reality

  • Ensemble Reality shows are cancelling production, both in studio and in the field.
  • A producer called me today wondering how her ‘fixed rig’ show might proceed.
  • These operations are often located in drama-filled and crowded locations like hospitals where access will be denied in such a crisis.

History

Among the casualties in the History genre are:

  • Dramatic recreations with a cast of actors.
  • Big History ‘events’ involving complex field operations, like submersible dives to the wreck of the Titanic.
  • Sub-genres that rely on crews who travel to distant locations:
    • Examples are Egyptologists heading to Luxor, or Military historians off to Normandy.

Archive

  • Programs that are based on the archive are highly deliverable.
  • They may involve a small team of a producer, researcher and editor, and no travel.
  • Shows that involve re-cutting and refreshing an archive may also enjoy an advantage as buyers seek substitutes for delayed or cancelled programs.
  • Programs that rely heavily on CGI may also enjoy an advantage

Natural History

  • In the Nature / Wildlife genre, huge Blue Planet-like series must be dealing with big problems.
    • They are likely to involve crews who travel to distant locations.
    • And there they often mix with the unprotected populations of poorer countries.
  • The elderly ratings rockstar David Attenborough is among the most vulnerable demos.
    • He will likely be grounded from serving as the embedded host of Blue Chip programs.
    • And lesser Wildlife talent will be reluctant to be exposed to virus risk for the foreseeable future.
  • Seasonality is another factor: many wildlife stories depend on capturing in Spring the key breeding sequences, often in remote sites.
  • For many species, these shoots will be suddenly off the table.

Wildlife: Singles & Couples

  • Wildlife programs that are driven by single cinematographer, or by a film-making couple, are more likely to deliver on plan.
  • Particularly if their projects are conveniently located near their home base.
  • All the better if they own a deep archive of compelling sequences to fall back on.

LIVE

  • One-off LIVE Wildlife specials like Yellowstone, Alaska and Serengeti will be unsustainable due to travel restrictions and the extensive crews required in field and studio.
  • On the other hand, this is a positive moment for LIVE Wildlife shows that rely on fixed camera rigs and small local crews.
  • Moving beyond Natural History, I can’t see how A+E Networks’ hit PD Live and its spin offs can continue production.
  • Police departments, field and studio crews, and the mainly minority populations who get hassled, are all experiencing virus restrictions.

Production Ecosystem: On a Tightrope

  • The major network groups have surgically removed cushion after cushion from the programming ecosystem.
  • Outside the big, repeating program franchises, well-established producers now commonly work in their basements.
  • They depend on networks of proven sub-contractors who in turn work out of their garages.
  • Many lack the financial or operating bandwidth to absorb a default down the production line.
  • It’s inevitable that the virus itself, or maybe just the distractions of caring for stay-at-home children, will disrupt key links in the chain.
  • Deadlines will be missed, and quality compromised.
  • Channels may respond by deferring or refusing payments to producers.
  • The economic health of the industry is walking the tightrope.

Ratings Up!

  • Meanwhile, an early report shows a ratings uptick for broadcasters of as much as 7%.
  • Its likely that HUTS – Homes Using Television – are rising in the absence of other entertainment and social activities.
  • We’ll watch closely how this translates into revenues for networks, though these are limited because most media buys are locked in.
  • Dominant streaming services, like Netflix and Disney + with their deep inventories, are likely to get a boost in viewing and subscriptions.
  • Niche SVOD services may experience a higher churn rate as their shallow inventories will be exposed to consumers who are cutting costs in response to the economic downturn.

Final Word

  • Our industry, like my adopted city, is remarkably resilient!
  • Producers, distributors and network programmers will rapidly adjust to the restrictions on their production processes, and to the oncoming recession.
  • New creative solutions will arise, just as they did after 9/11 and other such shocks.
  • Advantage will likely fall to the nimble, the flexible, and the deeply-researched.
  • There will be winners: new ones and repeaters. There always are.

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