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’20/20’ in a Pandemic: How ABC News Solved Its Remote Production (and Bathroom) Problems

“Not being able to enter an interview subject’s home has created a whole new set of challenges,” producer Marc Dorian says

Getting quality footage for a competitive newsmagazine is tricky under normal circumstances, but ABC News’ “20/20” had a “wake-up call” about just how hard it would be once everyone was working remotely during the pandemic, according to senior executive producer David Sloan.

“Last March’s lockdown was a wake-up call,” Sloan told TheWrap. “In order to stay on the air with original episodes, we knew we had to reinvent the way ’20/20’ collected material for its stories and news-gathered. We had to innovate ways to remote control a lot of our production, reporting, shooting and editing.”

When it came to finding those “innovate ways” to film, the team realized that having subjects figure out their own recording methods wasn’t going to meet producers’ standards for “20/20,” which switched to a two-hour show in 2019 and maintained that format during lockdown.

Producer Marc Dorian explained, “My colleague Jeff Schneider and I began brainstorming remote shooting ideas while we were all quarantined with one goal in mind: high-quality remote production without overwhelming the interview subject. We sent people iPhones and computer web cameras, but ultimately found that using a mirrorless Sony camera tethered to a laptop allowed us to get a higher quality shot with shallow depth of field and the exposure we wanted.”

Depth of field and exposure aren’t typically elements of TV production that interviewees have to worry about for themselves. But with no in-person production team on hand, Dorian was left trying to walk them through it all remotely.

“We drop the kit at the interview subject’s doorstep or ship it to a technician who delivers the kit,” Dorian said. “Once the subject connects the laptop to WiFi and tethers the camera, we can remotely control the focus, exposure and start/stop recording. The interview is then done through Zoom.”

During the summer, in-person production somewhat resumed, although there were new safety regulations to contend with, including the use of social distancing and masks. One of the biggest obstacles, according to Dorian, was finding accessible bathrooms for crew members.

“Not being able to enter an interview subject’s home has created a whole new set of challenges,” he said, explaining that his team ended up just parking RVs outside of people’s houses. “Also, good WiFi is paramount and having a MiFi hotspot as a backup might save the day.”

Bathroom access and spotty WiFi aside, Sloan said his most significant challenge was figuring out “how to do law and justice reporting with so many courts shuttered and trial dates postponed,” especially since lockdown turned “some stories into a waiting game.”

Dorian added, “If you spend too much time thinking about what could go wrong, you’ll never do it. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, trust the technology and be adaptive, creative and flexible, while of course keeping the safety and health of everyone involved paramount.”

In spite of the trial and error — and the headache of shipped iPhones — “20/20” did find a way to overcome the challenges and come out on top. For the first time in five years, the show beat “Dateline” and was Friday’s #1 newsmagazine during the November 2020 sweep in the advertiser-coveted age demographics of 18-49 and 25-54.

A special edition of “20/20,” “The Shot: Race for the Vaccine,” airs Monday night at 10 p.m. ET.