‘American Idol, ‘AGT’, ‘SYTYCD’ & ‘MasterChef’ Among Unscripted Series In Limbo As Networks Deal With Reality Of COVID-19 Crisis

Editors’ Note: The television business is in a state of flux as the global Coronavirus pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives and hit the economy. This is one of several stories that will look at how the non-scripted industry is coping with the crisis.

ABC’s American Idol is supposed to start airing live performance shows in just a couple of days. But last week, prep work, including rehearsals with the finalists, was suspended, and the contestants were sent home to be with their families amid escalating coronavirus pandemic.

Imagine a world where talent show contestants have to perform in front of their mirrors rather than live audiences or where a Bachelorette can only speak to potential suitors via teleconferencing – these are some of the potential fallouts of the COVID-19 crisis on non-scripted television.

In much the same way as their scripted siblings, non-scripted buyers and producers are fighting to adapt to a new normal to ensure that holes in the schedule are kept to a minimum and that the (reality) show can go on.

Almost all of the big tentpole formats, from American Idol to Survivor and America’s Got Talent to The Bachelorette have been hit by the production shutdown as has Fox’s Masterchef, which was forced to shut down in the middle of its season 11 shoot.

The reality pipeline is, however, not running completely dry. Shows such as NBC’s World of Dance and Songland, Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen and Ultimate Tag and ABC’s The Bachelor: Listen To Your Heart are shot and in the can and ready to be slotted into schedules, while there’s the potential for major formats such as Big Brother and Love Island to get up and running once the worst of the crisis dissipates.

ITV America, which had to shut down filming on shows such as Netflix’s Queer Eye, is confident that CBS’ version of British dating reality hit Love Island will still go ahead this summer. CEO David George said that the show, which was moved up from July to May this year, can be turned around in less than 48 hours. “Once the switch is turned on, we can get it to air very quickly. As of right now, we’re not particularly worried, because it’s quick turn, it makes sense. We’re trying to get it as ready as possible so when [CBS] says ‘go’, we’re ready, location-wise, build outs, casting

Meanwhile, while Fox has had to suspend work on shows such as So You Think You Can Dance (right), its forthcoming Korean mystery music gameshow I Can Be Your Voice and the second season of Rob Lowe-fronted Mental Samurai, it can take solace in the fact that it has seen ratings bumps for the likes of The Masked Singer and Lego Masters, while it also has episodes of Beat Shazam and its new competition format Ultimate Tag completed.

ABC is dealing with challenges on American Idol, but the network has also got some non-scripted shows in the can. In addition to the musical spin-off of The Bachelor, it has Jimmy Kimmel’s celebrity edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? banked for April and mini-golf competition format Holey Moley ready for a likely early summer bow. It will, however, need to make decisions soon on shows such as The Bachelor In Paradise, Shark Tank and Dancing With The Stars, which traditionally air in late summer and early fall.

NBC has been seriously impacted. The network’s America’s Got Talent cut short its audition tapings and has postponed tapings for American Ninja Warrior. It also must contemplate what to do with The Voice’s live shows, once its pre-taped episodes run out at the end of April. But the biggest challenge will come from the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, with NBC losing hundreds of hours of programming across the summer.

One suggestion is running shows originally planned for the NBCUniversal cable universe, such as the remake of Talpa’s wacky, water-based format Cannonball, commissioned by USA Network, on the broadcast channel.

Rival networks are also now revaluating summer plans, particularly weighing up whether they now try to schedule shows during the period when the Olympics was set to be on after many had decided not to counter-program against NBC during the games.

International formats, particularly finished British shows, are also expected to find their way on to American schedules in a way that has never been seen before outside of a few experiments on The CW.

Streamers Aim To Keep Momentum During Corona-Crisis

Elsewhere, the streamers are also hoping to keep up momentum on their non-scripted efforts. Netflix’s documentary series Tiger King about wild animal keeper Joe Exotic was well timed, dropping the weekend that most major cities in the U.S. went into lockdown, Apple launched Oprah Talks COVID-19 with Idris Elba last week and Amazon’s fashion series Making The Cut (left), starring Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn launches on March 27.

Earlier this week, Netflix renewed a number of unscripted shows including Studio Lambert-produced social experiment The Circle, hip-hop competition Rhythm + Flow and Love Is Blind and kicked off casting.

Love Is Blind has evidently been a breakout for the streamer; the show, which follows singletons in isolation pods looking for love, became Netflix’s top show in a number of markets including the U.S. and UK following its launch on Valentine’s Day. Quarantine has only helped numbers, adding to social buzz from the likes of SNL’s parody. Kinetic Content CEO Chris Coelen, who created the format, tells Deadline, “I’m glad that people are enjoying Love Is Blind and if that is as a result of [being at home during Coronavirus], in a small way it’s contributing to people being happy.”

Even digital platforms like Facebook Watch are affected, to some extent, with the shutdown. Ample Entertainment is producing the second season of 9 Months with Courteney Cox, which looks at the journey of pregnancy for a wide variety of subjects. Ample is somewhat lucky in that around 90% of the show is self-shot by the contributors and it has edited around half of the episodes for a Mother’s Day launch, but it still needs to shoot some scenes with Cox. Ample’s Co-Founder and Co-President Ari Mark tells Deadline that he will likely shoot those himself with the Friends star in LA, observing Corona-friendly guidelines.

How The Cable Business Is Coping With Covid-19

Cable business is the bread-and-butter for a huge number of non-fiction producers with the likes of Discovery, A+E Networks and Nat Geo contributing hundreds of hours of original programming every year. There is a fear that schedules might start to dry up later this year and these networks, as well as cable operations from the likes of NBCU and ViacomCBS, will need back-up plans. Discovery, which has also been hit internationally by the Olympics cancellation, is understood to have had a COVID-related greenlight meeting earlier this week.

Wheelhouse founder Brent Montgomery, who had to hit pause on a big History project as well as a series for Netflix, says, “Cable was already in crisis mode and this will exasperate that. We’ve seen what the major media stocks have done on linear platforms but coming out this there will be a new openness to new business models. Unscripted has always been resilient and we see there’s a great opportunity as networks have huge holes,” he adds.

Jim Casey, boss of Painless Productions, agreed that it was “unchartered territory” for the business after calling back in crews for Travel Channel show including The Dead Files and The Holzer Files. “Cable networks will be hit the hardest – streamers don’t have holes in their schedules because they don’t have schedules so we’re trying to focus on helping our loyal clients [in the cable space],” he says.

Casey says producers need to adapt, while still thinking about production values. “You are never going to be able to do an intimate scene between two people who are having a dramatic conversation – you’re not going to be able to do The Real Housewives on Skype but there’s a lot of success in self-shot paranormal shows and MTV’s younger audience has a much higher tolerance for [self-shot shows], he adds. “People might be streaming Contagion and Outbreak but that’s a morbid curiosity that’s very temporary. I feel like by the time the shows we’re producing now, no one is really going to want to think about [Coronavirus].”

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