Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on television in the United States

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on the television industry in March 2020, particularly in the United States, mirroring its impacts across all arts sectors.

Upon the arrival of the pandemic in the United States, almost all television entertainment production ceased, besides those capable of being continued remotely and/or with reduced personnel (including new series or special episodes of existing series that were specifically designed around remote/at-home production, or otherwise set during the pandemic).

By June, some productions resumed after implementing social distancing guidelines, quarantine measures, and other safety protocols in order to appeal to relevant health orders and protocols agreed upon by the television industry.

The pandemic is the most impactful shutdown on the American television industry since the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike, which disrupted nearly all scripted and daily talk show television production.

Scripted programming[edit]

Initial suspension of production[edit]

The production of many scripted television series have been affected by the pandemic. On March 10, Fox announced that a production member of the upcoming show NeXt has tested positive for the coronavirus. Production of the series was completed one week before the announcement.[1] Furthermore, the Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suspended its international production in Prague, where a week of filming was set aside. Filming continued in Atlanta until filming statewide was suspended two weeks later.[2]

On March 12, Universal Television delayed shooting for the shows Russian Doll, Rutherford Falls, and Little America.[3] A few hours later, NBCUniversal announced that 35 additional shows would suspend production, including unscripted shows. As such, programs such as the three series of the Chicago franchise as well as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, FBI, New Amsterdam and Superstore had their production suspended; Superstore had to modify its season finale with making its 21st episode in the fifth season the last one produced before the shutdown, short of a 22-episode order.[4] Furthermore, it was revealed that production of Carnival Row had been suspended. Carnival Row was filming in Prague at the time of the production shutdown.[5] The same day, Netflix announced that production on the final season of Grace and Frankie would be suspended as a number of the actors are at high risk for the virus due to their age.[6] Also on March 12, ViacomCBS announced that One Day at a Time would continue production without a studio audience but on March 20, the executive producers stated that production has suspended.[7] Apple suspended production of The Morning Show and Foundation as a precautionary measure. The following day, Apple suspended production on all upcoming shows.[8][9][10]

On March 13, CBS Television Studios announced several series would suspend production including all series that are part of the NCIS franchise, Bull, Dynasty, Nancy Drew, Charmed and The Good Fight. Most of the multi-camera sitcoms produced by CBS Television Studios had already completed production;[11] The Neighborhood was to film its season finale without a studio audience, but ultimately chose to suspend production the next day, scrapping the planned season finale episode.[12]

The same day, AMC suspended production of Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead.[13] Also on March 13, Warner Bros. had suspended production on multiple series including All Rise, Batwoman, Bob Hearts Abishola, Euphoria, The Flash, God Friended Me, Riverdale, Supergirl, Supernatural, and Young Sheldon.[14] Lastly, Netflix announced that production on all its films and series in the United States and Canada would be suspended. Production in other countries would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.[15] With the show's cancellation by CBS, the last filmed episode of God Friended Me was retooled into a series finale, "The Mountain", by incorporating reusable stock footage from past episodes, and unused location footage from the pilot that had been saved for potential use within a finale.[16][17]

20th Television and ABC Studios suspended production on multiple series, including Empire (prematurely ending its final season), Pose, Queen of the South, American Housewife, as well as Grey's Anatomy and Genius.[18] On March 14, Sony Pictures Television announced that it would suspend production on several series including The Blacklist and The Goldbergs.[19] The Blacklist would utilize animated sequences inspired by graphic novels in order to complete the partially-filmed episode as a premature season finale.[20]

On March 15, MGM Television revealed that it had suspended production of The Handmaid's Tale. Filmed episodes may air sometime in 2021.[21] Another Hulu series, The Orville, also suspended production. Last Man Standing originally planned to film its season finale without a studio audience before ultimately suspending production. Both The Orville and Last Man Standing were among the last television series to suspend production.[22] NBC pulled the April 7 episode of its medical drama New Amsterdam for sensitivity reasons (as it dealt with a flu pandemic affecting New York City, a real-life epicenter of the outbreak).[23]

The big three networks' soap operas also suspended production, with CBS's The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless, and ABC's General Hospital eventually running out of first-run episodes by late-April and late-May respectively. All three shows began to air themed reruns of classic episodes in the interim. Strategies were employed to ration remaining episodes, including replacing first-run episodes on Fridays with reruns. General Hospital also employed increased use of flashback scenes from recent storylines to draw out its remaining inventory of episodes. By contrast, as episodes of NBC's Days of Our Lives are produced roughly eight months in advance of their broadcast, the program had a much larger backlog of first-run episodes available. Viewership of U.S. soap operas saw gains as stay-at-home orders were applied nationwide in late-March, with both The Bold and the Beautiful and General Hospital seeing their best ratings since March 2018, and Days of our Lives and The Young and the Restless seeing their best ratings since 2019.[24][25][26][27]

Resumption of production[edit]

In late-April 2020, Tyler Perry told Deadline Hollywood that he planned to resume production of programming at his Atlanta-based Tyler Perry Studios by June, with plans to test cast and crew members on-site before they travel, sequester them on the Fort McPherson site's housing, barracks, and other purpose-built structures for the duration of production (which Perry estimates typically takes two-and-a-half weeks for a full season), quarantine them until the results of a second test are received, and test them again at least every four days afterward. Perry stated that he wrote his scripts with a smaller number of personnel and cast members in mind.[28][29]

On April 30, industry group Film Florida released a comprehensive series of recommendations and safety protocols for film and television production, ranging from regular health screenings to limits to the number of on-site staff, not sharing microphones and other equipment, using clear barriers between actors when marking and establishing shots, and other considerations regarding use of personal protective equipment by crew members. The group noted that studios should "anticipate inefficiencies due to new procedures," and that the guidelines should be used in conjunction with industry guidelines once established.[30] On May 22, Georgia (which, primarily via the Atlanta area, has become a major southern hub for television and film production) became the first state to formally release such guidelines, drawing from guidance from local officials and studios, as well as the Film Florida guidelines.[31]

On June 5, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that film and television production in California could resume beginning June 12, subject to approval by county public health officers following a review of local conditions. The California Department of Public Health stated that workers "should abide by safety protocols agreed by labor and management, which may be further enhanced by county public health officers." Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer initially stated that she would not immediately allow film and television production due to an increase in recent hospitalizations,[32] but later announced on June 10 that they would be covered under the next phase of local health orders taking effect June 12.[33] That day, the Directors Guild of America, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and SAG-AFTRA published "The Safe Way Forward", which details health and safety protocols agreed upon for union film and television productions. This includes regular testing of cast and crew members, closed sets, access zones, shooting limited to ten hours, and all productions requiring an on-set health safety supervisor.[34][35]

On June 18, Deadline reported that NBCUniversal had begun an incremented return to work at its facilities, including exercises of new protocols. NBCUniversal also performed in-house production of materials such as face masks and hand sanitizer via its Facilities and Administration department for use at other sites outside of California.[36]

On June 17 at Television City, The Bold and the Beautiful became one of the first U.S. scripted television series to resume on-set tapings, although production subsequently went on a one-week hiatus in order to accommodate modifications to its protocols to handle the larger number of tests needed.[37] Scenes are being filmed in such a way as to allow physical distancing on-set, and immediate family members of cast members may be used as stand-ins during scenes that require intimacy. On June 23, it was reported that the resumption had been delayed by one day, as the studio needed to switch testing providers because one provided by Television City had produced too many false positives [38] The Bold and the Beautiful began airing first-run episodes on July 20.[39] General Hospital resumed production on July 22, with first-run episodes resuming on August 3.[40] Fellow CBS soap The Young and the Restless began airing new episodes on August 10,[41] and Days of our Lives planned to resume production by September.[39][42]

On July 25, Tyler Perry's BET series Sistas became one of the first U.S. scripted primetime series to complete a full season of filming under COVID-19-related safety protocols. Perry reported that there were four positive cases among extras and crew who arrived, and that the start of production had faced a delay due to slower turnarounds for testing admit a nationwide spike. While Perry hoped a vaccine would soon be available, he explained that "we are set up for the long haul, we could be here for a year and a half, two years, five years if we needed to."[29] The second season of fellow Tyler Perry production The Oval was completed on August 14.[43]

Resumption of The Good Doctor in Vancouver was briefly disrupted by conflicts with local labor unions over the large amount of testing being required by Sony Pictures Television, citing Canadian requirements that already mandate 14 days self-isolation upon entering the country, and the relatively lower rate of transmission in the province of British Columbia at the time. Privacy issues with plans to contract private labs for testing was also cited as a factor. The impasse was resolved in mid-August.[44][45]

On December 28, 2020, FilmLA published excerpts of a letter recently sent by Los Angeles County health officials, recommending a temporary suspension of "higher risk" production activity due to the current and "catastrophic surge" of COVID-19 infections in the area. The surge resulted in a lack of ICU capacity, Governor Newsom referring to LA as the current "epicenter" of COVID-19 in the country, and the introduction of a mandatory 10-day self-isolation period for those returning from outside of Los Angeles County. On December 29, SAG-AFTRA's president and national executive director issued a statement indicating that the union was "closely monitoring the recent surge". As a result, most major LA-based television productions extended their pre-scheduled breaks for the holiday season through at least January 11, 2021, if not later.[46][47][48] Some productions were reported to have resumed production around January 13, 2021.[49]

Topical programming[edit]

The children's program Sesame Street produced two half-hour specials. The first – Sesame Street: Elmo's Playdate – which dealt with the pandemic and socializing with others remotely. It premiered on April 14, airing in simulcast across multiple WarnerMedia networks (including HBO, which has served as the current first-run broadcaster of the series since 2016) and the PBS Kids channel. The special was underwritten by WarnerMedia parent company AT&T, airing commercial-free.[50][51] Apple TV+ also launched a spin-off of Fraggle Rock, Fraggle Rock: Rock On!, filmed entirely using iPhone smartphones from the performers' homes.[52]

Nickelodeon ordered two new shows, tentatively titled Group Chat: The Show and Game Face.[53] The channel also ordered an extra episode of Danger Force, over web streaming.[54] It also commissioned podcasts based on The Loud House, Blue's Clues & You!, The Casagrandes, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, as well as one about its animation studio.[55][56]

YouTube commissioned a mystery series from Sinking Ship Entertainment, Locked Down, for its YouTube Originals brand.[57]

On April 30, NBC aired a one-off, remotely-produced reunion episode of its sitcom Parks and Recreation, "A Parks and Recreation Special", in support of Feeding America.[58]

In May, CBS legal drama All Rise aired a topical episode, "Dancing at Los Angeles", as a replacement season finale. It was filmed from its actors' homes using videoconferencing, depicting the in-universe version of the Los Angeles Superior Court conducting its first virtual bench trial due to the pandemic.[59]

On May 22, Apple TV+'s Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet released a special episode filmed using iPhone smartphones, showing an in-universe impact of the pandemic on its characters.[60]

On July 16, NBC broadcast a one-off reunion episode of its sitcom 30 Rock; the episode was co-produced by NBCUniversal's creative services department and intended to serve as its upfronts presentation in lieu of a physical event — incorporating product placement and promotions for upcoming series across NBCUniversal properties (including, in particular, its new Peacock streaming service), and being screened in a remote presentation to advertising partners and the media earlier in the day. Due to its promotional nature, many NBC affiliates declined to broadcast the special in primetime.[61][62]

On August 17, PBS children's series Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood premiered "Won't You Sing Along With Me?", an episode dealing with the pandemic. It is also producing related episodes revolving around themes such as doctors, separation anxiety, changes at school and safety.[63]

Comedy Central animated series South Park broadcast a standalone, one-hour special, "The Pandemic Special", on September 30, satirizing the pandemic and the racial unrest that had emerged in the country over the summer.[64]

Several networks have ordered scripted series set during the pandemic, including Joanna Johnson's Love in the Time of Corona for Freeform, Jenji Kohan's anthology Social Distance for Netflix, Martin Gero and Brendan Gall's Connecting for NBC (which was ordered straight-to-series), and a remote work-themed workplace comedy being developed by Ben Silverman and Paul Lieberstein of The Office.[65]

A number of returning programs have addressed the pandemic as a plot point in their episodes, including Black-ish and The Conners,[66] the fourth season premiere of The Good Doctor,[67] Superstore (which satirized safety protocols being taken by retail stores and the branding of their employees as "essential workers"),[68] NCIS: New Orleans (whose seventh season is set during the initial onset of the pandemic in Louisiana),[69] and Bull.[70]

Unscripted programming[edit]

Suspension of production[edit]

In mid-March, Sony Pictures suspended production of its game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! (Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek had a weakened immune system due to his pancreatic cancer).[71] Other postponed productions included American Ninja Warrior, Card Sharks, The Price Is Right and The Real Housewives of New Jersey.[72][73]

ABC reality series The Bachelorette delayed filming for its sixteenth season, which was set to premiere on May 18.[74] A retrospective spin-off, The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons – Ever!, premiered on June 8, featuring highlights and behind-the-scenes footage of past seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.[75] On April 29, Variety reported that Bachelor spin-off series Bachelor in Paradise had postponed its seventh season to 2021, and that ABC was pursuing filming The Bachelorette over the summer for a fall premiere.[76] ABC had also planned to produce The Bachelor Summer Games, but initially shelved the series shortly after the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics to July 2021 (which the series was intended to counterprogram, just as its counterpart The Bachelor Winter Games had for the 2018 Winter Olympics), the spin-off would eventually be cancelled in April 2021 following the decision was made by the Japanese government banning foreign spectators to travel to Japan during the Olympics.[77][78]

Prometheus Entertainment claimed that its productions of the History programs Ancient Aliens, The Curse of Oak Island, and The UnXplained were exempt from Los Angeles' stay-at-home order, which declared "front line news reporters, studio, and technicians for newsgathering and reporting" to be "essential critical infrastructure workers". President Kevin Burns, according to The Hollywood Reporter, told employees they needed to "get over it" and were "hysterical"; the company required staff to attend work through at least March 20.[79]

CBS reality series The Amazing Race stopped production on its thirty-third season in late February after filming the season's first three episodes (which were mostly filmed in the United Kingdom), and the preceding thirty-second season was set to premiere on May 20 (although that season was filmed in late 2018) but was pushed back to a fall premiere.[80][81] Production of the 41st and 42nd seasons of Survivor, which were due to film in Fiji at the end of respective months of March and May, was postponed to 2021 (Fiji had also closed its borders to non-citizens).[82][83] While the program's producers aimed to potentially begin production of season 41 in May for a fall premiere, it did not come to fruition, and the next season of S.W.A.T. (originally scheduled to be produced for midseason) was moved to CBS's provisional fall schedule in July 2020.[84]

Fox dancing competition series So You Think You Can Dance was preparing to begin production on its 17th season in mid-March, but it was postponed indefinitely on June 18.[85] On February 16, 2021, TVLine reported that Fox and the show's producers still had no plans for season 17 to move forward at this time.[86][87]

Return to production, modifications[edit]

Fremantle initially announced that the fifteenth season of America's Got Talent (NBC), and Season 22 of Family Feud (syndicated), would film without an audience.[72] Starting the week of March 10, CBS began displaying disclaimers in the end credits for The Price Is Right during episodes recorded from late-2019 into 2020, disclosing that producers will arrange substitute prizes for contestants who won trips as prizes for locales impacted by the pandemic.[88]

ABC's primetime reboot of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire quickly filmed over eight episodes' worth of material during the weekend of March 14 (wrapping production one day sooner than scheduled). The program filmed with no studio audience beyond staff present on-set, resulting in the replacement of its "Ask the Audience" lifeline with "Ask the Host". The program's new host Jimmy Kimmel credited his early career in radio in helping adapt to the environment.[89][90] The second run of episodes was scheduled for a fall premiere, featuring a mixture of celebrity contestants and frontline workers.[91]

After filming without an audience for the remainder of its audition rounds, the 15th season of America's Got Talent suspended production on March 14; filming of the auditions was originally scheduled to conclude on March 20.[92] To help attract additional contestants, NBC announced on April 1 that it would open a new round of online auditions.[93] By April 27, production staff decided that the season would premiere on May 26 as planned.[94][95][96] The show ultimately resumed production in June with a streamlined version of its "Judge Cuts" round, in an outdoor stage setting in Simi Valley, California with enhanced safety protocols and remote performances.[97] The live quarter-finals (which, due to the revised Judge Cuts format, also had a larger field with four heats rather than three as in past seasons) were held at Universal Studios Hollywood rather than the Dolby Theatre, with a mix of pre-recorded remote performances, and in-person performances emanating from various locations around the park and the Universal Studios Lot.[98]

The 18th season of American Idol (ABC) shifted to an at-home format beginning with its Top 20 round on April 26, with its contestants and judging panel conducting the program from their residences.[99][100] The 18th season of The Voice (NBC) followed suit for the final three weeks of the season.[101]

The third season of The Masked Singer (Fox) already completed filming before pandemic-related restrictions took effect. Acknowledgements to the pandemic were added in post-production of the final episodes, such as dialogue by Night Angel referencing the panic buying of toilet paper. The penultimate "Road to the Finals" episode also included a special performance of "What the World Needs Now Is Love" dedicated to first responders, featuring season 3 contestant Dionne Warwick and the remaining three finalists. The performance was filmed after filming wrapped. Post-production was performed remotely.[102][103]

After a pre-scheduled hiatus, Live PD (A&E) returned on April 15 with a series of pandemic-themed episodes under the title Live PD: Special Edition. These episodes deviated from the program's usual format (which follows patrols by police officers in real time) by covering responses to COVID-19 by first responders, hospitals, and other officials. On June 10, after having been suspended on June 6 following protests over the police killing of George Floyd, the program was cancelled by A&E and its producers.[104][105][106][107]

The live finale of Survivor's 40th season (Winners at War) aired as scheduled on CBS, but it was conducted in a remote format with host Jeff Probst hosting from a small set located in his garage.[108][109] In February 2021, Fiji's Ministry of Trade and Commerce Minister Faiyaz Koya announced that production for the show's 41st season could begin after multiple delays.[110] Production for the series resumed in March 2021 with COVID protocols in place for the crew, constestants, and people of Fiji.[111]

The second season of Love Island (CBS) was set to premiere on May 21, but production (which had been scheduled to occur in Fiji) was suspended indefinitely.[112] On August 5, CBS announced that Love Island would premiere on August 24, and would be set at The Cromwell casino hotel in Las Vegas.[113][114] ABC's Shark Tank also elected to film its upcoming season in a larger "bubble" setting in the Las Vegas area, rather than Los Angeles.[115]

After being delayed from its usual June premiere, the 22nd season of Big Brother (CBS) — Big Brother All-Stars — premiered on August 5. The format already takes place in an isolated living environment, but general precautions were taken by production staff (including use of masks and being restricted to specific areas), while the houseguests were tested and quarantined prior to entering the Big Brother house, and tested weekly. Live shows were held without a studio audience.[116][117]

New and returning game shows also adopted similar changes, including remote auditions, reduction of on-site staff, no studio audiences, and set modifications for physical distancing or other factors (with Wheel of Fortune introducing handheld, cap-like grips, dubbed "the white thing" by host Pat Sajak, to grab the pegs of the eponymous wheel without making direct contact with them).[118][119] Fellow syndicated game show 25 Words or Less divided its in-studio contestants and celebrities into "pods", with host Meredith Vieira presenting the show remotely from her home in New York City.[120] CBS's The Price is Right resumed production in October for its 49th season, with set modifications to cover the audience area, and accommodations being made for all of its current pricing games to comply with health and safety protocols.[121] Its sister show Let's Make a Deal maintained a smaller audience consisting of the episode's contestants, while at-home players also participated in the show.[122]

Fox resumed production of its new music game show I Can See Your Voice in August 2020, after production was suspended with one episode completed. The second episode and further were taped with only essential personnel and no audience.[123]

The fourth season of The Masked Singer commenced production a few weeks later.[102] Among noted production changes were extensions of protocols already used to conceal the identities of the performers, a re-location from Television City to Red Studios Hollywood in order to have a larger "bubble", increased use of "virtual reality" effects on-stage, and the use of "quarantining and various camera tricks" to preserve the visible presence of an audience (including use of stock footage of audiences from past episodes). The format of the competition was adjusted to reduce the number of times each contestant needed to perform, and live-action "clue packages" were largely substituted for animated shorts to reduce the amount of filming needed. Executive producer Craig Plestis noted that the production was also able to leverage panelist Ken Jeong's experience as a physician, and as host and co-executive producer of I Can See Your Voice, for input on their protocols.[124][102]

The 19th season of American Idol reworked its preliminary "Idol Across America" auditions to use a remote format rather than a nationwide tour (which also had the effect of widening the accessibility of the auditions process). The show limited its audition rounds to three locations in California (Los Angeles, Ojai, and San Diego), with auditionees being flown in from outside of the regions.[125][126] For the live rounds, the show reintroduced a smaller live audience in a wider studio. A twist was announced for the April 19 episode, where ten previous contestants from season 18 would return to compete for a wild card spot in the season 19 field; this twist was intended as an opportunity for the contestants to perform in-person on the American Idol stage after the previous season was forced to shift to a remote production [126][127]

Topical programming[edit]

TLC premiered a spin-off of 90 Day Fiancé, 90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined, on April 20, following the impact of the pandemic on series alumni. The series uses self-recorded video and videoconferencing.[128] The network also announced Find Love Live, an interactive dating game show conducted via videoconferencing, as a three-week event series premiering on May 10.[129] In June 2020, TLC renewed Find Love Live for additional episodes beginning June 22.[130]

On May 7, 2020, Fox premiered Celebrity Watch Party, a 10-episode U.S. adaptation of the British series Gogglebox (where individuals are filmed watching and discussing television programs at their homes).[131][132]

On May 11, Food Network premiered Amy Schumer Learns to Cook, a home-filmed cooking show starring comedian Amy Schumer and her husband Chris Fischer.[133] In July 2020, the channel also premiered a spin-off of Restaurant: Impossible, Back in Business, featuring host Robert Irvine revisiting restaurants from past episodes to help them adapt to the impact of the pandemic on restaurants.[134][135] Fellow Food Network program Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives adopted a modified, home-filmed format due to the pandemic, featuring host Guy Fieri preparing meals using ingredients sent to him by chefs, with instruction and commentary provided to him videoconferencing.[136]

On May 29, CBS aired the Jerry O'Connell and Rebecca Romijn-hosted special Haircut Night in America, which focused on providing advice for DIY hairstyling.[137]

On July 13, E! premiered Celebrity Call Center, a series featuring celebrities engaging in remote conversations with members of the general public.[138]

In November 2020, TBS ordered a U.S. adaptation of The Container Cup — a Belgian format developed in the wake of lockdowns, where celebrities and athletes compete in sports challenges delivered to their homes inside shipping containers rigged with cameras [139][140]

Talk shows and variety programs[edit]

On March 10 and 11, a number of talk shows announced they would begin filming without a studio audience, including both daytime (such as Walt Disney Television's Live with Kelly and Ryan, Strahan, Sara & Keke, The View).[141] and late night talk shows.[142][143][144][145] Beginning March 12, a number of talk shows – including those which had before planned to tape without an audience – announced they would suspend production entirely. Both The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS) and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC) already had hiatuses scheduled in late-March.[146] The View continued production, but panelist Joy Behar, and later Whoopi Goldberg, would begin appearing remotely due to health concerns, and the show modified its set for social distancing on March 17, replacing the panel's table with what Goldberg described as a "big-ass desk".[147][148]

On March 12, The Late Show, The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Kimmel Live! (ABC, with guest host Pete Buttigieg) all aired one final, studio-based episode with no audience, while Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC) shelved its originally-planned episode after its scheduled guests declined to attend. Meyers still filmed that night's "A Closer Look" segment, which was posted on the show's YouTube channel.[149][150] Last Week Tonight (HBO) filmed one more episode from an alternate, undisclosed location (due to the closure of the CBS Broadcast Center, its usual studio, for disinfection), with host John Oliver announcing that the show would go on hiatus.[151]

Migration to remote formats[edit]

In the wake of the suspensions, late-night hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers began to produce topical videos for YouTube from their homes or other locations, with a focus on monologues and celebrity interviews performed via videoconferencing (while Kimmel also experimented with an in-person interview of Bill Burr by doing it from his car, taping an iPad to his side window to use as a camera).[152] While primarily distributed on digital platforms such as YouTube, from March 16 to 18, CBS aired Colbert's segments on television to augment reruns of The Late Show (replacing the existing opening act of the respective episode; the dates had originally been scheduled for original episodes before a regularly-scheduled hiatus for the cancelled NCAA basketball tournament),[153] while NBC began to similarly air Fallon's segments on March 18.[154][155][156][157]

The following week, NBC announced that it would continue on with and expand Fallon's "At Home Edition" format (interspersing new segments with highlights from past episodes), while several other news satire and talk shows, including The Daily Show (Comedy Central; billed as The Daily Social Distancing Show),[158] Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS),[159] Last Week Tonight, and fellow HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher, announced that they would also return to air that week with episodes filmed from their hosts' homes.[160] The Late Show announced on March 25 that it would return in a similar format on March 30 (billed as A Late Show with Stephen Colbert),[161][153] while Jimmy Kimmel Live! announced a similar move on March 27 – making it the last of the big three networks' late-night shows to make such a transition.[162] Fellow Comedy Central late-night program Lights Out with David Spade was suspended, and later cancelled by the network due to low ratings (after which The Daily Show expanded to 45 minutes beginning April 27, 2020).[163]

A number of daytime talk shows adopted a similar format, including The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The View, and The Talk.[164] After a primetime special on March 30,[165] The Late Late Show with James Corden returned to air with a similar format on April 13, with host James Corden presenting the program from his garage.[166]

NBC's late-night sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live suspended production on March 16, before returning with its own "at-home" episode on April 11, with sketches and music performances recorded or produced remotely from its cast members' and musicians' homes, and hosted by actor and COVID-19 patient Tom Hanks.[167][168] After becoming the second-highest-rated episode of the season, NBC announced that a second episode with a similar format would air on April 25.[169] An At Home season finale aired on May 9, hosted by Kristen Wiig.[170]

The annual PBS Independence Day special A Capitol Fourth cancelled its live concert in favor of recorded segments (including highlights of past editions in honor of the program's 40th anniversary, and tributes to first responders and African Americans), although the live fireworks on Capitol Hill would still go on and be televised.[171] The Macy's 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular special on NBC similarly relied on recorded performances from various locations (including the Grand Ole Opry and the Prairie Sun Recording Studios), and the fireworks themselves were launched from locations in each New York City borough on multiple nights (with each night's location only revealed shortly prior to avoid prolonged gatherings), which were then compiled for broadcast.[172][173][174] Despite the easing of health orders, A Capital Fourth will use the same format for 2021 as it did in 2020, due to it already having been planned for such a format in advance.[175]

NBC's A Little Late with Lilly Singh had pre-recorded the entirety of its first season in late-2019, with original episodes running through May 2020. NBC renewed the series for a second season that month, which premiered in January 2021.[176][177][178] At this time, host Lilly Singh migrated to a home-based production with remote interviews rather than a studio as before.[179] During the season premiere, Singh commented upon viewers that had expressed concerns on social media over why the show was still airing first-run episodes with a studio audience, as they were unaware that the episodes had been filmed "back in 2019 when the only people wearing masks were robbers and Jim Carrey."[179]

Return to studio-based production[edit]

On July 6, 2020, after having used an at-home format, TBS's Conan became the U.S. late-night show to begin airing episodes from outside of their host's home, with host Conan O'Brien presenting the program from the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles with limited on-site staff. The program will continue to use remote interviews and be filmed without a studio audience (besides assistant Sona Movsesian).[180][181]

On July 13, The Tonight Show became the first U.S. late-night talk show to return to tapings at their normal facility (although at NBC Studios' Studio 6A with a new set rather than Studio 6B, where the show usually originates), with limited on-site crew (including his house band The Roots) and no in-studio audience or interviews. The program hosted its first in-studio music performance from 6A on August 11, with Trey Anastasio performing a song from his album Lonely Trip with The Roots.[182][183]

On August 6, 2020, CBS announced that its late-night shows would return to studio tapings with no audience on August 10; The Late Show returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater building but not the auditorium proper, using a smaller, secondary set modeled upon Colbert's personal office at the building, while The Late Late Show returned to a reconfigured version of its normal studio (with its sofa replaced by a single armchair for Corden, and audience seats removed).[184][185][186][187] Usher was the show's first in-person guest since the start of the pandemic; the segment was initially presented as being a glitchy remote interview, featuring a parody of "My Boo" with Corden entitled "My Zoom", before Usher suddenly emerged from backstage.[188] On September 14, Corden temporarily hosted from home, after being required to self-isolate due to a possible COVID-19 exposure outside of the studio. The rest of the program's staff remained in-studio, with Corden appearing on-stage via a monitor atop his desk.[189]

Jimmy Kimmel Live! resumed production at the Hollywood Masonic Temple when Kimmel returned from his summer break (covered by hiatuses and guest hosts) on September 21.[190] Live with Kelly and Ryan also returned to studio production for its new season, using a wider desk for physical distancing between hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, but with a split screen effect for the main camera angle designed to make them appear closer together.[191]

Saturday Night Live returned to in-studio production for season 46 (which premiered October 3), with executive producer Lorne Michaels stating that they also planned to have a "limited" studio audience.[192] To comply with New York state health orders, each audience member receives a $150 payment from Universal Television so that they are technically considered to be part of the cast and crew of an audiovisual production.[193]

In January 2021, Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Late Late Show announced that they would temporarily return to at-home formats, in accordance with recommendations issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.[194]

On March 22, 2021, The Tonight Show returned to Studio 6B for the first time since March 12, 2020, with a downsized studio audience of 58 health care workers and first responders, making it the first of the major networks' late-night talk shows to return to having an in-person audience. Fallon stated that having an in-person audience for the first time in over a year felt like "performing at a sold-out Madison Square Garden."[195]

On May 24, 2021, The Late Show announced plans to return to its main studio on June 14, 2021, with a full-capacity audience; all audience members must be fully-vaccinated in compliance with New York state health orders and current CDC guidance. Shortly afterward, The Tonight Show announced it would return to a full-capacity audience on June 7, which made it the first U.S..late-night talk show to do so in terms of airdate.[196][197]

New programming[edit]

New variety programming[edit]

Various specials featuring musicians performing from their homes emerged, including Fox's iHeart Living Room Concert for America (which aired in place of the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards, and was simulcast by iHeartMedia radio stations and Fox Corporation cable channels),[198][199] a CBS special featuring Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood,[112] ACM Presents: Our Country (a similar multi-artist program aired in place of the postponed ACM Awards, also on CBS),[200] The Disney Family Singalong (an ABC special on April 16, which featured karaoke performances of songs from Disney franchises with celebrity guests),[201] One World: Together at Home (which aired on April 18 as a multi-network simulcast across ABC, CBS, NBC, and various other cable networks and streaming services), Saturday Night Seder (streamed live of April 11),[202] and Saving Our Selves (aired by BET on April 22, with a particular focus on the pandemic's impact on African-American communities),[203][204]

On May 16, the major networks and various other outlets simulcast Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020, a national special honoring graduating students.[205]

New talk programming[edit]

AMC premiered a new weekly talk show on April 17, Friday Night In with The Morgans, hosted by Jeffrey Dean Morgan (of AMC series The Walking Dead) and his wife Hilarie Burton from their farm in New York, featuring remote interviews and other segments dealing with the pandemic. On May 4, AMC ordered additional episodes of the series.[206][207]

Impact on scheduling[edit]

Upon the start of COVID-19-related restrictions, broadcasters were forced to rely on their remaining inventory of completed programs that had not yet aired, and the remaining completed episodes of series whose production was interrupted.[208]

Due to factors such as the need to ration series that have already completed production, some programs have faced scheduling changes (such as replacing double-runs of new episodes with single episodes), delays of their scheduled premieres, or dividing seasons of programs with natural hiatuses (with the remaining episodes airing at a later date once production resumes).[209][210] In May, both ABC and CBS filled portions of their schedule with films from their parent companies, with CBS airing CBS Sunday Night Movies on Sunday nights (featuring Paramount Pictures films), and ABC reviving The Wonderful World of Disney to air a series of Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Marvel Studios films on Wednesday nights.[211][212]

It was reported in April 2020 that the major broadcast networks had begun to develop contingency plans in case of extended disruptions (especially if they were to impact fall series for the 2020–21 television season), including the possibility of filling schedules with series from co-owned cable networks and streaming services, or importing programs new to American audiences from other countries such as Canada.[208]

Impact on the 2020–21 network television season[edit]

Most fall television premieres occur from mid-to-late September through October. Due to production delays, the Big Three networks initially targeted premieres for their scripted series within the year, but with no specific dates set.[213][214][215] With the steady resumption of production, the networks began to set premiere dates from late-October through mid-November.[216][217][218] Some of NBC's fall programming, as well as all of Fox and The CW's fall scripted programming, was deferred to midseason premieres in 2021.[219][220]

Due to their quicker turnaround time in comparison to scripted series, production of non-scripted programs (including game shows and reality shows) were also expedited by networks to fill gaps in their lineups.[215][221] With the delayed premieres and increased production costs due to safety protocols, it was reported that scripted dramas would likely not air full 22-episode seasons, with CBS having already reduced orders for CBS Studios' dramas and sitcoms to either 16 or 18 episodes in October 2020, and negotiating similar reductions for series from other studios.[222]

ABC[edit]

Premiere dates were announced for ABC's lineup on September 17, with October premieres for reality series such as The Bachelorette, Dancing with the Stars, and Shark Tank, and game shows (including held over episodes from its Sunday night summer block of Celebrity Family Feud, Press Your Luck, and Match Game on Thursday nights, and Supermarket Sweep, Card Sharks and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on Sundays).[221] ABC's sitcoms would largely return in late-October, and selected dramas (including new series Big Sky) were set for mid-November, although Stumptown would be canceled by the network and replaced by For Life.[223]

The Bachelor, Mixed-ish and The Rookie, along with new series Call Your Mother, were scheduled for premieres in January 2021. ABC also scheduled several new and returning game shows to its winter lineup, including a new season of To Tell the Truth, and a "Winter Fun & Games" block on Thursday nights (spun off from its summer "Sunday Fun & Games" block) featuring the new series Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, The Chase, and The Hustler.[224][225][226]

After not airing new seasons in the summer of 2020, season 17 of The Bachlorette, Bachelor in Paradise, and The $100,000 Pyramid were scheduled to return for ABC's summer lineup.[227] Coming off the success of the delayed season 16 as a fall premiere, ABC announced that season 18 of The Bachlorette would air as part of its 2021–22 fall lineup.[228]

CBS[edit]

CBS pushed back Season 32 of The Amazing Race to a fall premiere, with the new sports panel show Game On! moved up to fill its spot on the summer schedule. CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl explained that they hoped their scripted programs could return to production "at some point this summer", and that they could have "most if not all of these shows on at some point in the fall." Kahl did not rule out other contingencies.[213][229] On July 13, CBS moved up S.W.A.T. to a fall premiere to replace Survivor, which was unable to resume production in time.[84]

On August 26, CBS announced that it would air reruns of series from sister properties, such as the fourth season of One Day at a Time (Pop) and the first season of Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access, doubling as promotion for the upcoming third season. Its filming was completed in February, with post-production done remotely),[230] and acquired series Manhunt: Deadly Games (acquired from cable provider Charter Communications) to round out its late-summer/early-fall schedule.[231]

CBS announced on September 17 that Sunday Night Movies (which CBS introduced in May as a limited run to fill timeslots held by suspended programming) would air for six weeks through October and November, to fill timeslots until its scripted lineup resumes production. As before, they drew from the library of corporate sibling Paramount Pictures.[211]

Fall premiere dates were announced for CBS's scripted lineup on October 13, which began with its Chuck Lorre sitcoms of Mom, Young Sheldon, and new series B Positive on November 5, NCIS: Los Angeles and New Orleans on November 8 (with the 10 p.m. hour being filled by "fan favorite" episodes of NCIS), S.W.A.T. on November 11, The Neighborhood, Bob Hearts Abishola, and All Rise on November 16, and NCIS on November 17.[218] Ahead of their return to daytime, CBS scheduled several primetime episodes of its daytime game shows The Price is Right and Let's Make a Deal, beginning with episodes of both featuring essential workers on October 27.[232]

CBS scheduled Clarice, The Equalizer, and a new season of Tough as Nails for its February lineup.[224] After not airing in the fall of 2020 or spring of 2021, Survivor will return to the air as part of the network's 2021-22 season.[233]

Fox[edit]

Fox announced plans for its fall lineup in May 2020, having deferred most of its scripted live-action programs to midseason (animated series such as The Simpsons can be readily produced on a remote basis). The new summer dramas Filthy Rich and neXt were pushed back to fall premieres. The fourth season of The Masked Singer was to initially be joined on Wednesday nights by a new season of MasterChef Junior, while Fox also acquired network premieres of L.A.'s Finest (a series originally picked up by Charter after being turned down by NBC) and Cosmos: Possible Worlds (from former sister network National Geographic, which premiered on that channel earlier in the year) for the fall lineup, and Thursdays and Fridays would be filled by Thursday Night Football (notwithstanding postponements due to NFL COVID-19 protocols) and WWE SmackDown.[220][234]

In August 2020, Fox pushed back MasterChef Junior in favor of I Can See Your Voice, a new music game show that was able to resume production in August.[235][123] For its winter lineup, Fox acquired a revival of Name That Tune to accompany the Masked Singer spin-off The Masked Dancer, which was filmed in Australia (a country which has had a significantly stronger management of the pandemic than the United States) with U.S. expats as contestants.[236]

NBC[edit]

NBC announced on May 14 that it had acquired the Canadian medical drama Transplant. In Canada, where the series aired at midseason on CTV, Transplant was the most-watched domestic production of the television season.[237][238]

A provisional fall schedule was unveiled in June 2020, with only one new series premiere originally planned (the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit spin-off Law & Order: Organized Crime), and no specific premiere dates announced.[214] In August, NBC replaced New Amsterdam with Transplant for a September 1 premiere,[239] and announced that the 12th season of American Ninja Warrior (which filmed at The Dome in St. Louis from late-June to mid-July)[240] would premiere on September 7.[241]

On August 27, NBC announced premiere dates for a number of fall series, including a revival of the quiz show Weakest Link hosted by Jane Lynch on September 28, the new videoconference-based sitcom Connecting on October 1, the fourth season of Ellen's Game of Games on October 6, season 19 of The Voice on October 19, Superstore on October 22, and The Blacklist, the Chicago franchise, Law & Order SVU, and This Is Us all during the week of November 9. The network deferred its remaining fall series (including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Law & Order: Organized Crime, Manifest, and New Amsterdam, among others) to midseason.[217]

On September 9, NBC bumped Weakest Link to Tuesday nights with a September 29 premiere, in favor of a second new episode of Dateline on Monday nights from September 21 to October 12 (with The Weakest Link moving to Mondays to accompany The Voice beginning October 19).[242] On September 23, NBC moved up the season premiere of This Is Us to October 27, with series creator Dan Fogelman later stating that the decision came from his desire for its first two episodes to air before election day.[216] The next day, Connecting would be pushed back to October 8, and Superstore to October 29.[243]

In November, NBC cancelled Connecting and pulled it from its schedule, with the remaining episodes to premiere via streaming only on Peacock.[244][245] On November 10, 2020, NBC acquired another Canadian medical drama, Nurses.[246] Midseason premieres included the new series Mr. Mayor, and returning series The Wall and Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist in January 2021, new series Kenan and Young Rock in February, and New Amsterdam, season 20 of The Voice, and new series Debris in March.[224]

The CW[edit]

The CW deferred most of its fall scripted premieres to January 2021.[219] The second half of the final season of Supernatural (which had been deferred to fall 2020 due to the pandemic, with two episodes left to film)[247] would be joined by a lineup of acquisitions, non-scripted series, and delayed summer series for the network's late-summer and fall lineups, such as new seasons of The Outpost, Pandora, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Two Sentence Horror Stories, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and the new series World's Funniest Animals.[219] It also acquired linear premieres of series from CBS and WarnerMedia's streaming services CBS All Access (Tell Me a Story) and DC Universe (Swamp Thing), and imported series from the UK and Canada such as Being Rueben, Coroner, Dead Pixels, Devils, Fridge Wars, Killer Camp, and Taskmaster (although Taskmaster would be pulled after its premiere due to low viewership).[248][249][250][251][252]

Many of The CW's scripted programs are filmed in Canada, which had relatively better management of the pandemic than the United States.[215]

News[edit]

Modified broadcasting[edit]

Amidst their coverage, television newscasts and news channels, have encouraged physical distancing on-set, remote work, and increased use of remote interviews – in order to comply with CDC guidelines, with in-person interviews (universally with the reporter both shooting and editing their story alone) often using improvised setups to allow distancing, including microphone extensions adapted from monopods and improvised PVC pipe booms. Local newscasts have faced similar changes, with stations often limiting newscasts to one studio anchor (or two if physically distanced), and newsrooms minimally staffed. Local newscasters began working from home in some cases, with a minimal number of staff remaining at the studio. Some meteorologists have already had this capability, in order to provide coverage of severe weather events during overnight hours if no one else is present at the studio.[253][254][255]

On March 15, a one-on-one debate for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries took place between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. After initially intending to hold the event at its original venue in Phoenix, Arizona with no audience or outside press, the debate was re-located to CNN's Washington, D.C. bureau to reduce unnecessary travel.[256][257] It was ultimately the only debate during the pandemic, as Biden clinched the Democratic nomination shortly thereafter. Biden subsequently conducted media appearances and meetings from his home in Delaware via videoconferencing.[258][259]

Two of the Big Three networks' national morning shows — ABC's Good Morning America and NBC's Today —continued to have in-studio anchors in New York City, although some anchors were temporarily moved home, including Today's Al Roker and Craig Melvin (as a precaution after a staff member of the program tested positive with mild symptoms),[260][261] and GMA's Robin Roberts (as a precaution due to past medical issues) and George Stephanopoulos.[262][263]

On March 11, the CBS Broadcast Center facility in New York City was closed for disinfection after two employees tested positive, resulting in CBS This Morning temporarily moving to the set of the CBS Evening News in Washington, D.C., and the newscasts of CBS-owned New York station WCBS-TV being produced and anchored remotely from the studios of its sister stations in California. While it re-opened on March 13,[264][265] it was closed once again on March 18. CBS This Morning subsequently moved to the set of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert at the Ed Sullivan Theater, before switching to a remotely-anchored format by late-March to minimize staff amidst heightening cases in the region.[266] CBSN programs (including the CBS Weekend News) were produced from other CBS O&Os and affiliates, and WCBS-TV newscasts were once again produced from Los Angeles sister station KCBS-TV, but with the anchors later appearing from the Stamford, Connecticut studio of the New York Yankees' YES Network for a period.[267][268][269][270]

A WCBS-produced primetime newscast on WUPA — a CBS-owned The CW affiliate in Atlanta — was also suspended due to the shutdown of CBS Broadcast Center. From late-March through early-August, the newscast was replaced by a straight simulcast of a 10 p.m. newscast produced by sister CBS station WBZ in Boston, with little effort to localize the program's content besides a news ticker, and weather segments produced from Detroit (which aired alongside those that were Boston-specific). This arrangement remained until August 11, when WUPA's newscast was taken over by CBS's Fort Worth station KTVT and returned to a local format.[271][272]

On June 22, in concert with phase 2 of New York City's lifting of restrictions, CBS This Morning returned to its studio at the CBS Broadcast Center, with minimized staff and at least one anchor continuing to host from home as a contingency. Fox News Channel's morning show Fox & Friends also resumed in-studio production, with social distancing enforced on-set.[262]

Pandemic-related programs[edit]

As the crisis became more obvious and activated, television news outlets began to increase their coverage of its impact at the local and national levels.[254] Fox News Channel added more live rolling news blocks to its schedule (including an extension of Fox News @ Night to 1:00 a.m. nightly, and a new overnight block anchored by Trace Gallagher), while Fox Business scuttled most of its prime time programming in order to carry additional coverage on its impact.[254][273]

ABC replaced its daytime talk show Strahan, Sara and Keke with Pandemic: What You Need To Know, a special weekday program produced by ABC News Live and hosted by Amy Robach. Due to the suspension of Jimmy Kimmel Live! , ABC temporarily returned its long-running late-night newsmagazine Nightline to its original 11:35 p.m. timeslot from March 17 through April 10. with a focus on in-depth coverage. With Jimmy Kimmel Live! shortened to half an hour for its at-home episodes, Nightline would then move to 12:05 a.m.[274][254][275]

Although What You Need To Know was initially promoted as an interim replacement for Strahan, Sara and Keke, the program would persist indefinitely. Several months later, it was quietly renamed GMA3: What You Need To Know (now branding it as a spin-off of ABC's morning show Good Morning America, as its predecessor had), expanded its scope to include other news topics unrelated to COVID-19, and added T. J. Holmes as a co-anchor in September. In July and August 2020, it was reported by Page Six and co-host Keke Palmer respectively that Strahan, Sara and Keke had been cancelled by ABC, absent an official statement on the future of the program.[276][277][278][279]

Most of NBC's owned-and-operated stations extended their local late-night newscasts to a full hour from March 16 to 27.[280] NBC's Spanish sister network Telemundo pre-empted its late-night sports program Titulares y Más in favor of a new late-night Noticias Telemundo bulletin, Coronavirus: Un Pais en Alerta (Coronavirus: A Nation On Alert), along with temporarily extending its morning show Un Nuevo Día by 90 minutes, its midday newscast Noticias Telemundo Mediodía by an additional half-hour, and its afternoon newsmagazine Al Rojo Vivo by one hour, in place of telenovela repeats and unscripted entertainment programs normally shown in some weekday daytime slots.[281][282]

On April 26, Netflix premiered a special limited season of its documentary series Explained, entitled Coronavirus, Explained. The first of the three planned episodes was produced in two-and-a-half weeks, and leveraged interviews that had previously been filmed for an episode on pandemics in general.[283]

In This Together: A PBS American Portrait Story premiered on May 8, 2020 as part of a larger series based on viewer-submitted content.[284]

Quarantines due to positive cases[edit]

Media organizations have also faced direct impact from the pandemic. Several correspondents have been diagnosed with coronavirus, including CBS News foreign correspondent Seth Doane, quarantined in Rome,[254][285] ABC News correspondents Kaylee Hartung, quarantined in Los Angeles, and George Stephanopoulos (who contracted it asymptomatically from his wife Ali Wentworth while quarantined at home in New York City),[286][263] and CNN anchors Chris Cuomo, Brooke Baldwin, and Richard Quest.[287]

Sports[edit]

Suspension of games[edit]

The suspension of nearly all sports leagues and competitions due to the pandemic caused complications for broadcasters, as major events frequently have a large number of live viewers and high advertising revenue.[288][289] The largest and most significant events also represent a major investment by broadcasters; in 2019, the total market for sports media rights in the United States was estimated at $22.42 billion, representing 44% of the international market.[290][288][291] CBS Sports and Turner Sports pay $785 million per-year to televise the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament – whose 2020 edition was cancelled only six days before it was scheduled to begin. In 2019, a 30-second commercial during the national championship game on CBS cost around $1.5 million, while CBS and Turner's contract to air the tournament accounts for nearly 72% of the NCAA's annual revenue.[288]

At the time of the suspensions, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) were also approaching their respective playoffs, Major League Soccer (MLS) was already two weeks into its regular season, Major League Baseball (MLB) was approaching the start of its regular season, CBS Sports was approaching its spring events such as the Masters Tournament, and NBC Sports was also approaching its spring lineup (promoted as the NBC Sports Championship Season), including the Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500, French Open, and the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs—all postponed by the pandemic.[288] Analysts felt that a postponement or cancellation of the 2020 Summer Olympics would have a major impact on NBCUniversal, due to the extensive rights fees it had paid to televise them, its large advertising inventory (NBC already announced that it had sold $1.2 billion in advertising for the Games), as well as the extensive use of NBCUniversal's various properties to promote the Olympics and vice versa; NBC was expected to use the Games to bolster the July launch of its new streaming video platform Peacock. On March 24, it was announced that the Games would be postponed to 2021.[288][289][292]

Sports-oriented cable networks revised their schedules due to the lack of live programming, typically relying on reruns of classic events and other original programming, and cutting down on studio programming due to the lack of sports news to discuss beyond the pandemic's impact.[293][294][291] An exception was the National Football League (NFL), whose 2019 season had already concluded in early-February. The pandemic's surge in North America roughly coincided with the beginning of offseason business such as the free agency period, and the lead-up to the 2020 NFL Draft, which went on as scheduled, but with no public festivities, and conducted remotely.[295][293][294][296]

ESPN acquired reruns of several recent editions of WWE's WrestleMania events as part of the lead-up to WrestleMania 36, which had also been impacted by the pandemic,[297] and ESPN2 organized an early reprisal of its annual "ESPN8" stunt (inspired by the depiction of a fictitious, eighth ESPN channel in the film DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, which airs competitions that are "almost a sport") on March 22,[298] followed by a May 2 edition on the main ESPN network (headlined by a deadlift world record attempt by strongman and Game of Thrones actor Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson).[299][300]

Regional sports networks were also impacted; the sale of regional broadcast rights serve as a key source of revenue for many sports franchises.[288] During the suspension of play, leagues granted RSNs easier access to archive content to help fill schedules, and some networks scheduled encores of games against opponents that their respective team would have played if the season had continued play as normal.[291][293][294]

Modified programming[edit]

Professional wrestling[edit]

One of the few forms of sports-oriented programming in the United States to continue regular broadcasts during pandemic-related lockdowns was professional wrestling. WWE suspended in-arena broadcasts of its weekly shows Raw (USA Network) and SmackDown (Fox) beginning March 13, and moved them to a closed studio at its WWE Performance Center training facility in Orlando, with no audience and only essential staff present.[301][302] WWE's flagship pay-per-view WrestleMania 36, originally scheduled for Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, took place under the same conditions (with two "cinematic" matches filmed at a second Orlando location, and at WWE's Stamford headquarters respectively).[303][304] From the lead-up to WrestleMania through April 10 (and including WrestleMania itself), WWE used a pre-recorded format for its programs, before switching back to live shows on April 13.[305][306] WWE NXT also returned to live broadcasts under similar conditions, from its usual home at Full Sail University in Orlando suburb Winter Park.[305][306] Matches originally intended for NXT TakeOver: Tampa Bay — a cancelled WWE Network special that was meant to serve as a support event for WrestleMania — were retooled for airing on NXT episodes in April.[307]

The government of Florida issued an exemption to the state stay-at-home order on April 9, for staff of a "professional sports and media production" produced behind closed doors for a national audience. Mayor of Orange County, Florida Jerry Demings stated that the exemption was primarily intended for WWE, while Governor Ron DeSantis did not rule out its use by other sports bodies.[308][309][310] All subsequent WWE pay-per-views until August 2020 were broadcast live from the Performance Center, and continued to include occasional pre-filmed and "cinematic" matches, including Money in the Bank (May, featuring a revamped version of its eponymous Money in the Bank matches taking place within WWE's Stamford headquarters),[311][312] Backlash (June, featuring a pre-recorded "Greatest Wrestling Match Ever" between Edge and Randy Orton with new production techniques, simulated crowd noise, and other homages to WWE in the 1980s),[313] and Extreme Rules (July, featuring a "swamp fight" match filmed at an outside location).[314][315]

All Elite Wrestling similarly moved its weekly Dynamite to the Daily's Place amphitheater in Jacksonville on March 18 for two more weeks of television.[316] While closed to the public, other performers were present on the sidelines as an audience.[317][318] The show moved to One Fall Power Factory, a wrestling training school in Norcross, Georgia owned by AEW producer Michael Cuellari for three days of taping on March 31, where the promotion recorded content for AEW's Road to Double or Nothing episodes of Dynamite.[319] AEW returned to Daily's Place May 6 for Dynamite episodes (some tape days featured two shows taped in one day), and moved the Double or Nothing pay-per-view on May 23 from its original venue, the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and also using neighboring TIAA Bank Field for a "Stadium Stampede" match.[320][321] WWE began to add NXT talent and other Performance Center trainees as an on-set audience beginning with the May 25 Raw. They were spaced apart and placed behind glass panes.[317][318]

On August 12, AEW invited 150 friends, family, and selected fans to attend a Dynamite taping in an experiment to test changes for a return to ticketed events. On August 20, AEW announced that it would begin to sell tickets for in-person spectators at Daily's Place at 10-15% capacity, beginning with the August 27 Dynamite.[322] Beginning with the August 21 SmackDown, WWE moved its main weekly shows and pay-per-views (beginning with SummerSlam two nights later) from the Performance Center to Amway Center with a larger-scale production (branded as the "WWE ThunderDome") and a virtual audience.[323][324]

In October beginning with NXT TakeOver 31, NXT and 205 Live moved from Full Sail to the Performance Center in a remodeled main arena branded as the "Capital Wrestling Center" (an homage to the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, a precursor to the present-day WWE), which features a virtual audience (similarly to the ThunderDome) as well as limited in-person attendance (friends and family, as well as some outside spectators).[325] It was reported that the change was due to logistical conflicts with Full Sail that prevented WWE from continuing production at the university.[326][327]

In January 2021, WWE announced that WrestleMania 37 would be re-located from SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California (which was given WrestleMania 39 in 2023 instead) to Raymond James Stadium (the originally-planned host of WrestleMania 36), and confirmed that it did plan to have in-person attendees at a reduced capacity (making it its first event to do so since March 2021.[328] Due to its cancellations of live, ticketed events, WWE had a 9% year-over-year decline in revenue between the first quarters of 2020 and 2021, which would be partially offset by lower operating costs, and an agreement with NBCUniversal's streaming service Peacock to be the exclusive U.S. distributor of WWE Network content.[329]

On May 21, 2021, WWE announced that it would return to in-person touring shows in July, beginning with a string of three shows in Texas; the July 16, 2021 SmackDown from Toyota Center in Houston, the Money in the Bank pay-per-view at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth on July 18, and Raw the following night from American Airlines Center in Dallas.[329][330]

Resumption of live sports[edit]

With the gradual resumption of live sporting events, broadcasters have taken steps to reduce the number of staff members present on-site.[331][332] Production teams on-site have typically been isolated into smaller units for social distancing reasons,[333][334][335] if not working aspects of production remotely from their network's studio instead (a model that has been used for some sport broadcasts even before the pandemic).[332] Commentators may also be required to call games remotely from their network's studio or at home.[335]

To reduce on-site staff during the 2020 Major League Baseball season, the home team's local broadcaster is responsible for producing a neutral host video feed to be used by each broadcaster carrying the game (including the away team's broadcaster and/or a national broadcaster, such as Fox or ESPN, where applicable), which augments it with commentary and surrounding coverage.[336] MLB commentators will not travel to their teams' away games, but may broadcast home games on-site at their discretion.[337][338]

With the NBA and NHL having adopted a centralized "hub" approach to complete their 2019–20 seasons, both leagues employed a similar model with host feeds produced by their national broadcast partners (ESPN and TNT for the NBA, and NBC and Canadian broadcaster Sportsnet for the NHL). Both broadcasters had selected on-air personnel within the quarantine "bubble", but the majority of NBC's commentators worked games remotely during the early rounds.[339][332] Both leagues were also experimenting with new types of camera angles that would not be possible in an arena with spectators present.[339][332] The NHL adopted a nearly identical neutral feed model to MLB for its 2020–21 season, although NBC has still sent its own crew for exclusive broadcasts.[340][341]

To compensate for the lack of crowd due to games being held behind closed doors, some broadcasters employed simulated crowd sounds sourced from their league's official video games, with the NHL combining them with recordings of team-specific chants contributed by fans,[339][332] and the NBA using video boards erected on its courts at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to display mosaics of remote fans powered by Microsoft Teams videoconferencing.[342] Fox experimented with the use of "virtual", CGI fans to mask empty stands on its baseball broadcasts.[343] By contrast, ESPN intentionally eschewed simulated crowd noise for its broadcasts of the MLS is Back Tournament, instead leveraging the lack of crowd and additional in-field microphones to provide enhanced in-game audio.[344]

WWE introduced a similarly styled "ThunderDome" staging at Orlando's Amway Center beginning with that week's SmackDown and SummerSlam pay-per-view, also using a virtual audience.[323][324]

Alternative event programming[edit]

Sports broadcasters experimented with televised esports competitions, primarily involving sports video games and participants from their respective sports, such as the ENASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series (whose first event on March 22 attracted 903,000 viewers on Fox Sports 1, making it the highest-rated esports broadcast on U.S. linear television.[345][346] A subsequent event simulcast the following week on Fox surpassed it with 1.339 million viewer),[347] a seven-week tournament that followed the original NASCAR Cup Series schedule (including taking the Easter week off), ending May 9, 2020 with a race on a recreation of historic NASCAR venue North Wilkesboro Speedway, in lieu of the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway (which had been rescheduled for June 10), before the return of in-person Cup Series competition with The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway.[348] The series was renewed for a second season in January 2021 as a ten week Wednesday night series with five weeks each half, and primarily promoting changes on the 2021 NASCAR schedule. The IndyCar Series and NBC Sports introduced a similar invitational series,[349] while ESPN and the NBA organized an NBA 2K Players Tournament,[350] and Major League Soccer partnered with Fox to hold a televised FIFA 20 tournament, featuring MLS players and professional FIFA 20 players from the game's esports circuit.[351] In professional esports, ESPN2 would simulcast matches from the 2020 League of Legends Championship Series Spring playoffs.[352]

ESPN organized a televised H-O-R-S-E competition, featuring NBA and WNBA players competing via remote feeds from their personal courts.[353][354] On May 4, 2020, ESPN announced that it had reached a deal for exclusive U.S. rights to KBO League baseball from South Korea for the 2020 season, leveraging ESPN Major League Baseball personalities working from home.[355] Another major exception to the lack of live sports programming was thoroughbred racing at selected tracks; Fox Sports 1 is simulcasting the New York Racing Association's America's Day at The Races, while NBCSN partnered with TVG Network to simulcast its Trackside Live program on weekend afternoons.[356][357] TVG itself switched to remote production, and on-air personalities began incorporating explanations of technical terminology to accommodate new viewers.[356]

Impact on the broadcasting industry[edit]

Implementations of mitigations such as stay-at-home orders led to a major increase in the usage of streaming services. Two more major streaming services — HBO Max (WarnerMedia) and Peacock (NBCUniversal) launched following the arrival of the pandemic, which has contributed to diffusion of content among multiple providers. In June 2020, Deloitte found in a survey that there was a growing "fatigue" over the number of competing streaming services, and that this and economic issues brought upon by the pandemic have led to increased churn, customers limiting the number of services they subscribe to at once, and growth in advertising-supported (either free or low-cost) streaming platforms.[358][359]

The pandemic also accelerated the market trend of cord cutting, the practice of reducing the use of traditional multichannel television services in favor of streaming services.[360][361]

Due to the suspension of production of launch programming, Discovery Inc. delayed its planned re-launch of DIY Network as Magnolia Network (curated by Chip and Joanna Gaines of the HGTV series Fixer Upper) from October 4, 2020 to a unspecified date in 2021,[362] with previews of its launch programming being available on its new streaming service Discovery+ in January 2021.[363] On February 11, 2021, Discovery announced that Magnolia's linear launch had been delayed to January 2022, and that it planned a wider streaming launch of its programming slate via Discovery+ and the Magnolia Network app on July 15, 2021.[364]

On sports networks[edit]

Sports channels typically demand the highest per-subscriber carriage fees of any cable networks in the country. There were calls for broadcasters to compensate television providers for the lack of live events during lockdowns that these fees typically cover; New York Attorney General Letitia James stated that it was "grossly unfair that cable and satellite television providers would continue to charge fees for services they are not even providing".[365]

In 2019, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Entertainment Studios (as Diamond Sports Group) acquired the RSN chain Fox Sports Networks for $9.6 billion, a transaction mandated as part of Disney's acquisition of 21st Century Fox. The group holds regional rights to 42 professional teams across the country, and voluminous high school and college sports rights.[366] Sinclair is also a joint venture partner with the Chicago Cubs in the team's new Marquee Sports Network.[367] Concerns were raised that Diamond Sports' investment in the networks was vulnerable due to the lack of live programming, with an analyst stating that Diamond "may be heading for a liquidity crisis even sooner than we anticipated", as carriage negotiations with major providers may be more difficult without live events.[368] Sinclair took a $4.23 billion write-down on the purchase in November 2020.[369]

In June 2020, citing the ending of its carriage agreements, the cancellation of NCAA tournaments, and uncertainties, ESPN announced that it would discontinue ESPN Goal Line/Bases Loaded, a part-time ESPN channel that carried rolling coverage of highlights and look-ins from regular-season college football games, and the NCAA baseball and softball tournaments.[370] When ESPN instituted a similar channel for coverage of the MLB Wild Card Series games, such coverage was delegated to subscription service ESPN+.[371]

In January 2021, an internal memo was obtained by media which outlined plans by NBC Sports to phase out the NBCSN cable channel, with their programming to be moved to USA Network and Peacock. While the memo did not specifically mention the pandemic as a contributing factor to the closure, NBC Sports was dealing with the impacts of the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics on revenue, among other postponed or cancelled events.[372]

Award shows[edit]

Several award shows were also postponed or reformatted, including the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards (originally to be held March 29 in Los Angeles and aired by Fox. Its ceremony was cancelled on August 24, with winners announced throughout the Labor Day weekend on iHeartMedia radio stations in lieu of a televised ceremony),[373][374] the 2020 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards (originally to be held on March 22 in Inglewood, California and rescheduled for May 2 in a remote format),[375][376] the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards (originally to be held April 5 and aired by CBS, but rescheduled for September 16),[377][200] and the 2020 Billboard Music Awards (originally to be held on April 29, but rescheduled to October 14).[378] The 74th Tony Awards (originally to be held on June 7 at Radio City Music Hall and aired by CBS) were postponed indefinitely, due largely to mandated closures of Broadway theaters in New York.[379][380] CBS aired a "sing-along" version of Grease as a CBS Sunday Night Movie in place of the ceremony.[381]

The 47th Daytime Emmy Awards cancelled its in-person ceremonies, which had originally been scheduled in a new three-night format.[382] On April 28, the NATAS announced that the presentation would be rescheduled in a remote format,[383] and announced on May 20 that the winners in leading categories would be presented in a CBS special on June 26 — which marked the return of the Daytime Emmys to television in any form (after having been streamed online) for the first time since 2015, and its return to network television for the first time since 2011.[384]

On May 1, the Television Critics Association cancelled their summer 2020 press tour, originally scheduled for July 28 through August 13, and including the TCA Awards. The organization was unsure it could occur at all due to public gathering restrictions, and an anticipated lack of any new scripted or unscripted programming output, even in pilot form, to promote.[385][386]

The 2020 MTV Video Music Awards cancelled its in-person ceremonies (scrapping plans to hold a less-crowded ceremony at Barclays Center),[387] relying mainly on pre-recorded performances and appearances on chroma key stages in New York City and Los Angeles (and in the case of K-pop group BTS, South Korea), and performances filmed on-location at sites across New York City.[388] New one-off award categories for best home-filmed music videos, "quarantine performances", and music performances by first responders were also added.[389][390][391] Its companion, the MTV Movie & TV Awards, never announced nominations or an airdate. On November 11, MTV announced that it would instead air a retrospective special, MTV Movie & TV Awards: Greatest of All Time, and aim to air a larger ceremony encompassing the summer of 2019 through 2021 in late 2021.[392] The network later announced that the 2021 MTV Movie & TV Awards would be held in May 2021 across two nights, with the second devoted exclusively to non-scripted television.[393]

The 55th Academy of Country Music Awards would be moved to Nashville, with performances and award presentations divided between the Bluebird Café, the Grand Ole Opry House, and the Ryman Auditorium.[394] The 56th ceremony in 2021 followed a similar format, albeit with health care workers as invited guests on the balconies at the Ryman and the Opry.[395][396][397]

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards were produced in a remote format from Staples Center in Los Angeles, with host Jimmy Kimmel and award presenters appearing on-stage at the arena, and nominees appearing via remote feeds from various locations.[398][399] Kimmel acknowledged the circumstances in his opening monologue, which featured stock footage and laugh tracks of audiences from past Primetime Emmy ceremonies (including one that showed Kimmel as an audience member).[400][196]

On January 5, 2021, the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards were postponed from January 31 to March 14 due to the then-current level of cases in the Los Angeles area.[401] The ceremony featured a mix of live and pre-recorded segments, Staples Center configured with no audience, and five different stages in a circular arrangement.[402]

The 93rd Academy Awards were postponed from February to April due to the impact of the pandemic on the film industry); the ceremony was re-located to Union Station's historic ticket hall, with a limited number of participants in the hall at any one time, and some appearing remotely from other locations (albeit not using videoconferencing).[403][404][405] The 78th Golden Globe Awards, also postponed, took the Oscars' original date, and featured in-person attendance at New York's Rainbow Room in addition to its traditional home of The Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles (with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-hosting from the two locations respectively), and some participants appearing remotely.[406]

On May 26, 2021, it was announced that the 74th Tony Awards would be held on September 26, 2021; the CBS primetime broadcast is being retooled into a concert special paying tribute to the reopening of Broadway, with the majority of award presentations outside of the top categories of Best Musical, Best Revival of a Play, and Best Play, being relegated to a streaming special on Paramount+.[407]

Beauty pageants[edit]

Several beauty pageants have been postponed or cancelled including Miss USA 2020, which was originally scheduled in spring 2020 but rescheduled for November 9, it was planned to be broadcast on Fox but moved to the cable channel FYI; Miss Universe 2020, which was originally scheduled in fall/winter 2020 and rescheduled for May 16, 2021, that event was also aired on FYI; and Miss America, its planned 94th edition (which was originally scheduled for December 2020) cancelled on May 8, 2020, the Miss America Organization opted to postpone its edition to a full year in 2021, causing to include revised eligibility for state qualifying pageants were due to have scheduled between April to July 2020, in which allowing competitors who would usually age out to remain in consideration. But the 2022 edition is set to schedule in December 2021.[408][409][410]

Affected productions[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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