As a show that is best known for keeping its contestants masked up from head to toe, Fox’s “The Masked Singer” was already in a better position, safety-wise, than many other unscripted programs returning to production amid the pandemic. But during its Season 4 shoot — which began Aug. 20 and wrapped Sept. 14 — broadcast TV’s highest-rated show obviously had to go beyond taking its usual precautions to conceal performers’ identities to following guidelines that would help curb the spread of the coronavirus for cast and crew.
And while the wacky Nick Cannon-hosted competition (which Fox decided would remain a Nick Cannon-hosted competition in July, following his apology for anti-Semitic remarks made on his podcast) was implementing serious changes, like COVID testing, staggering call times, cutting out the large in-studio audience and eliminating off-site shooting, “The Masked Singer” executive producer Craig Plestis was finding ways to make up for what it had lost.
“When the pandemic hit, there were two big points, at least for myself and my team: How to be creative in this pandemic — make it look like a bigger show than we’ve ever done before, but with the limitations of shooting in a pandemic? And then the second part is how to make a show with fewer people on the stage area, so everyone’s protected,” Plestis, who developed the South Korean “Masked Singer” format into the Fox version that premiered in January 2019, told TheWrap.
When the fourth season of “The Masked Singer” premieres Wednesday, you’ll find out the answers to these questions included a “very small” number of in-studio viewers, an at-home audience, fan voting, animation and virtual reality effects, as well as the show’s first-ever two-headed costume, the Snow Owls, the first costume with animatronics, Serpent, and the first puppet costume, Baby Alien. (That last one is so cute Plestis “almost stole him from the costume department and brought him home.”)
“We used a lot of virtual reality in our set pieces on the stage and around the stage, creating worldscapes,” Plestis said. “And that was done mainly so we didn’t have to bring in extra crew and extra props and more people on the stage. You’ll see a lot of differences this season to with the virtual reality stuff, with the animation, with adding America’s votes — since we couldn’t have a full audience of 300 people, though we’re utilizing some audience footage from pasts seasons to get that audience feel. We’re augmenting some of the clapping and stuff to get that audience feel, kind of like what sports does. But we want to make sure our show comes back and doesn’t feel like a Zoom show. And for myself, as a viewer, not a producer, when I come home at the end of the day, I want to watch TV. I don’t want to watch another Zoom. I Zoom almost 24/7, so that’s the last thing I want to see is little boxes. I want to watch my old TV show.”
“And when America is coming back now in the fall here, we’re going through such a horrible time and this show is such a special little island away from anything else. It’s family viewing. And we want our comfort food. I do. I want my family back together again, my panel, my host. I want it to feel like we went back in time a little bit with some new innovations — and I think we actually did that. It’s just going to put a smile back on America’s face.”
“The Masked Singer” was “lucky” in some ways while shooting during COVID because the show has been separating its teams out of secrecy from Day 1 and, of course, that whole mask thing. Plus, Plestis and co. had already figured out the basics of mastering remote post-production when “The Masked Singer’s” third season had to be completed just as the coronavirus started to spread in the spring. So Season 4 was all about how to make everything else work within new guidelines, like adding “a desk the size of a football field” to safely space out judges Ken Jeong, Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy and Nicole Scherzinger.
“Instead of going out and shooting our ‘clue packages’ like we’ve done before, with our contestants and costumes and crews of people, this season we used [Fox-owned animation studio] Bento Box and did them as animated shorts, mainly because we wanted to just have less people around. But also it was an experiment to try something different,” Plestis said. “We had an opportunity this season to push ourselves as producers. We’re kind of confined, but what can we do this season that we wouldn’t normally have tried if it wasn’t for this horrible situation that we’re in?”
While Plestis was working out many pandemic-induced creative problems, the network was facing some practical ones.
“The whole keeping people safe, for me, was a logistical challenge but something that you can control and manage and get to a place by extensive discussions with doctors and health authorities and so on, where you feel like you can keep people safe. The bigger challenge is to persuade people they are safe,” Fox’s alternative entertainment president Rob Wade told TheWrap. “And so that was perhaps the biggest thing I was worried about, because I didn’t know whether our host and our judges and celebrities would even want to come to set, because you know people and I know people, who are very understandably, like, ‘I don’t really want to leave the house at the moment. And I’ve got enough money, so I won’t.’ So that was a huge concern for me, and rightly so.”
Though host Cannon and judges Jeong, Thicke, McCarthy and Scherzinger joined in for Season 4, Wade says that wasn’t the case for all of the competitors who had been booked pre-pandemic, with some dropping out once COVID-19 spread, postponing their “Masked Singer” participation until they feel more comfortable on a set.
“We had people who were too scared to come out. And I’m not criticizing them, because I understand that, it’s a scary thing, particularly if you’re an older person or have underlying health conditions,” he said. “But that was a big thing for me that we had to work really hard on. It’s really about laying out our plans to the talent and to the cast and crew to say, ‘We feel like you will be safe in this environment.'”
Fox “overbooked” in the end, having anticipated more dropouts, resulting in a final tally of 16 contestants (but 17 celebrities, because of the two-headed costume): Serpent, Gremlin, Snow Owls, Crocodile, Giraffe, Broccoli, Popcorn, Seahorse, Jellyfish, Mushroom, Whatchamacallit, Squiggly Monster, Dragon, Baby Alien, Sun and Lips.
Part of the plan to produce Season 4 safely for both the contestants and the crew was moving “The Masked Singer” from its usual space at CBS Television City in Los Angeles over to Red Studios Hollywood. Plestis says that change allowed them to get “as close to an NBA bubble as you can get for a TV show,” with a “locked down lot” that was only home to “Masked Singer” while it was shooting.
“We went above and beyond on the side of safety, but I think it paid off. We’re done shooting and we made a show,” Plestis said. “We went over our protocols where everyone knew when and where we were shooting. And also with the celebrities, they were always self-contained anyways, nobody could ever go up to them. Literally, we were pre-COVID COVID for our celebrities because the secrecy of their identities had to be protected. So it just became part of the safety precautions as well.”
Wade says Season 4’s winner performed five times versus the nine times that Season 3’s winner, Kandi Burruss a.k.a. Night Angel, performed, as the focus this time was on keeping the number of celebrities high while making the number of times they had to sing low.
“And the reason we did that was because we wanted them on-site for as short a time as possible. So in our last season, people came to set, they performed, they left, they came back a couple of weeks later, they performed, they came back a week later, they performed. So in and out and in and out and in out of the bubble. We wanted to tell people, you come in, you perform, you have three days of filming, then you stop and then if you’re through that stage, you come back and do another week of filming.”
To make matters even safer for everyone on set, Fox had a doctor in the house, Dr. Ken Jeong. Jeong got some experience shooting during COVID while hosting the first season of Fox’s new singing competition “I Can See Your Voice,” which taped three weeks ahead of the fourth season of “The Masked Singer,” and Plestis says Jeong’s “stamp of approval” on Fox’s safety procedures meant more to him than “anyone else.”
And those guidelines implemented to keep “The Masked Singer” cast and crew safe kept the show’s crowd even safer.
“The final big hurdle was audience. That was a huge issue for me. From the very beginning, from March, it was concerning to me,” Wade said. “And we found various ways in which to create an audience or make the appearance of an audience and also to create an atmosphere within the studio that lent itself to allowing the judges, hosts and celebrities under the mask to actually perform.”
That problem was solved by having a “very small” number of in-studio audience members, combined with “super fans” who joined the show’s at-home audience via Zoom for Season 4. That lucky group also got to vote on performances, something “Masked Singer” viewers at home have never been able to do before, because a way to pull off fan-voting on a pre-taped show had never occurred to the producers before.
“That seems like such an obvious thing to do, but it wasn’t obvious. And we did it, and it was actually very, very simple to achieve because of, essentially, the adeptness,” Wade said. “You go back six or seven months ago and say, we want to go on Zoom — and the word Zoom’ you would have been like, what? — so we want to go on Zoom and get like 300-400 people and they’re all going to phone in from their laptops. You’d have said, you’re going to just play them something from their computers? We’d have all been like, yeah, technically we could do that. But it would have just felt like a lot of hard work and probably ineffective. Whereas now we’re like, yeah of course. Of course that will work. Of course everyone knows how to get on to the right interface and mute their calls. And that was a silver-lining from the production.”
A silver-lining Plestis “never” wants to give up, even once he can get his large in-studio audience back.
“I still want to keep that open up to all of America to vote. I think that’s really instrumental,” he said. “It was interesting to see that people from all 50 states signed up to participate and to be able to vote. And it was so much fun watching it, because I could watch all of America, because we have a feed of all of their Zooms while they’re voting. And we open up a little chat room so they could all talk to one another too.”
“And when we put the call to action out there, we did a little vide beforehand talking about how they’re in the brotherhood/sisterhood of ‘The Masked Singer,’ could you please keep what you see secret,” he added. “Text and post your heart out on the day of our show when it airs, but please keep it quiet until then. And they all did! They were really great and so happy to be invited into the world of ‘Masked Singer.’ I never want to give that up.”
“The Masked Singer” has also been gathering questions from fans over social media for the panel to ask contestants to help make the show “present in now for everyone so they can feel like they participated.”
“But also, I just like hearing the fans talk. Yes, I love my panel and everyone else. But we really want to make sure that America’s heard throughout the whole show,” Plestis said. “They’re very vocal. There is a reason why we trend every night when we’re on. Our fan base is very passionate and they’ll love certain characters, they’ll despise others, they’ll make fun of Ken’s bad guesses. So we want to make sure they have a voice within the show. It is extremely important for us.”
“And we listen, myself, my team, when the show airs, we look at the comments. We see what they liked, what they didn’t like. We try to make a better show each time. We really try to listen to America, we don’t think we know better. And if there is a way to improve things we do it.”
That’s what Plestis is hoping he was able to manage with a season that had to adapt dramatically due to the pandemic.
“We did push things even further,” he said. “That puppet, it’s amazing that we were able to put that off. A two-headed costume in COVID times, how did we do it? Great casting, which you’ll find out, I can’t tell you that right now. But as difficult as it is to cast in COVID times, we were very lucky to get some people that we typically would not have gotten, if it weren’t for this time… And there’s a lot of great innovation and quality didn’t go down, I think quality actually went up and maybe because we didn’t have other distractions. We were all in our houses so all we did was live and breathe ‘The Masked Singer’ lingo throughout the whole time. We were lucky in the sense that we got pushed.”
“The Masked Singer” premieres Wednesday at 8/7c on Fox.