How Pandemic Could Delay 60% of Scripted Shows and Change TV Production

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“If one principal cast member gets sick, it’s extremely difficult to course correct and shoot around their absence,” screenwriter Neil Landau says

It could be a while before we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming, with the coronavirus pandemic derailing up to 60% of scripted shows that were set to be released by the end of 2020, according to a report from Ampere Analysis on Tuesday. During the second half of the year, Ampere projects there will be 5-10% fewer scripted titles released each month by the world’s top TV producers. That global downturn is expected to linger into the first half of 2021 — and could extend even longer. There already has been a noticeable downturn for scripted projects compared to last year, with only 51% of scripted shows ordered between March and May 2019 airing to date. And so far in 2020, commissioning of scripted content is down 40%, according to Ampere’s data. “There is one certainty among the current uncertainty — that the COVID-19 pandemic will change the TV production industry far beyond the end of the lockdown,” Ampere analyst Fred Black said. “Initially, we expect delays to cause gaps in scripted TV release schedules, which broadcasters and streaming players will have to fill with other content.” Black added that when delayed productions eventually start to fill in the schedule gaps down the road, it’ll lead to a “depression” in the number of new shows being greenlit “for some time after the shutdown ends.” In other words: Producers won’t need to sign off on as much new content because the shows they had pegged for late 2020 will now shift to next year. As a result, the pandemic not only ends up hampering shows that are currently in production or looking to film in the near future, but even shows that were hoping to make a 2021 debut. Unscripted content will take a hit, too, with summer hits like “The Bachelorette” and “Love Island” delayed. But Ampere projects this downturn won’t be as long-lasting as it is for scripted shows, with the firm estimating more than 70% of unscripted shows will be unaffected by October. Why are unscripted productions better able to bounce back from the pandemic than scripted shows? “[The] bottom line: scripted series’ budgets are much higher and tend to involve multiple locations. If one principal cast member gets sick, it’s extremely difficult to course correct and shoot around their absence,” said screenwriter and UCLA professor Neil Landau. “With so-called reality TV, the producers can quickly excise a cast member and recalibrate… You can’t do that on, say, ‘Succession’ or ‘Barry.’ If Bill Hader gets sick, you shut down.” The pandemic is also forcing producers to look at alternative methods of getting their shows on TV. “One Day at a Time” will be airing an animated special later this spring, for example, and Landau said there could be an accelerated move towards places like Pinewood Studios, which is about 45 minutes outside of Atlanta, as producers look for “coronavirus-free production communities.” By filming in remote locations with a lower population density, shows increase their odds of avoiding a production shutdown due to the pandemic.
Moving forward, producers will likely look to shift the balance toward more unscripted shows than scripted content, allowing them to be more nimble in case someone gets sick. And for scripted shows, a heavier reliance on special effects and CGI, when the budget permits, will let shows keep headcount down. It’s one reason Landau said he’s predicting Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which shoots in Atlanta, will be the first major production back on schedule: The show is green screen-driven and shoots on a closed set.