Running out of shows to binge? Hollywood is scrambling to meet content demand

“It’s laughable to say there is a schedule set,” one media analyst said. “There are so many up-in-the-air questions.”
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By Alicia Victoria Lozano and Diana Dasrath

Major television networks started trotting out their fall lineups this month in atypical fashion. Conspicuously missing from the announcements are the star-studded parties at big venues like Radio City Music Hall, events that had come to define the showcase season in a pre-coronavirus world.

Instead, advertisers this year will be treated to significantly less fanfare as Disney, ABC, NBC and CBS hold virtual conferences to announce their fall shows. At first glance, the lineups that have been announced appear full, with both renewed and new series slated to air later this year. Whether those materialize, however, remains a big question as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ground productions in Los Angeles and New York, both of which have extended their stay-at-home orders.

“It’s laughable to say there is a schedule set,” said media analyst Richard Greenfield, from LightShed Partners. “There are so many up-in-the-air questions.”

Tyler Perry’s Atlanta studio could provide one blueprint for resuming production of new content in the age of the coronavirus. The actor-turned-filmmaker and producer will open his Georgia studio in July to start production of BET’s “Sistas” and “The Oval.” Filming will take place over 2 1/2 weeks and closely follow local and union regulations. Perry will fly cast members on his private plane from New York and Los Angeles after they are tested for the coronavirus. Once they land in Atlanta, they will join other cast and crew members on set where everyone will be tested for COVID-19. Carlos Del Rio, professor at the Emory Vaccine Center in Georgia, will act as testing consultant. Additional tests will be conducted throughout production.

Larger productions will likely not be able to maintain this much control over the cast and crew, however.

“Imagine, hypothetically, that ‘Game of Thrones’ was still shooting on multiple continents with massive casts, massive logistics,” Greenfield said. “Smaller scale, simpler productions are going to be much easier than large cast, crew productions.”

Some theater productions that were in the works before the pandemic hit will never see the glittering lights of opening — and in some cases, reopening — night.

On Thursday, Broadway’s musical hit “Frozen” announced it will not continue even after New York greenlights theaters to open their doors. Other shows — including a revival of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” starring real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker and a musical about Michael Jackson — have pushed their productions to 2021. Some shows scheduled to open this spring, including a revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” have abandoned those plans.

Despite the uncertain outlook for theatrical productions, viewers will have plenty to watch on their TVs and apps this summer. Streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix and the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock are releasing an abundance of offerings in coming weeks.

“There is so much [streaming] and on-demand content available, I think it will take a long time before we run out of content,” said Mike Milligan, senior director of product and solution marketing at Limelight Networks, a content delivery network and service provider.

New shows continue to be the big question, however. While Netflix and Amazon have large libraries of pre-existing content to fall back on, traditional television networks don't function that way. Pilot season was canceled earlier this year when the pandemic started, and now productions are halted indefinitely.

"The broadcast networks is where you're going to see a much bigger issue because this is the point, the time of year, where typically they're ramping up and filming all of their new product," said Lacey Rose, executive television editor at The Hollywood Reporter.

Viewers will likely see more content addressing the coronavirus as studios struggle to navigate production restrictions.

Amazon is featuring the pandemic in its new docuseries “Regular Heroes,” which will look at the impact everyday people are having on the response to COVID-19.

Lifetime will premiere a new unscripted show, “Once Upon a Quarantime,” in May that follows four couples who have filmed their lives during stay-at-home orders. Like other studios, Lifetime, a subsidiary of A&E Networks, said in an emailed statement that new movies are on hold but the channel has a backlog of 50 titles planned between now and the remainder of the year.

“We are in good shape into next year,” the statement read. “Once filming is back up, we will be up and running, too.”

While some productions can be easily adapted to the new work-from-home reality, films and scripted television shows will have a harder time. CW announced Thursday that it is delaying its new season until January 2021. The final episodes of “Supernatural” will air in the fall as planned, according to the network.

“By moving our new season to January, we are stocking our fall with a balance of original and acquired scripted series and alternative programming that fits the CW brand and provides fresh programming through the fourth quarter,” said Mark Pedowitz, chairman and chief executive officer of The CW.

Networks and streaming providers have been adapting to the changing entertainment landscape in real-time. At the beginning of the outbreak, broadcast journalists were the first television presenters to go live from their homes. Competition shows and late-night shows were next, giving Stephen Colbert the opportunity to host “The Late Show” from his bathtub and the "Saturday Night Live" cast to shoot from home. Even the beloved “Star Trek” actor LeVar Burton started livestreaming some of his favorite books and poems from his Los Angeles home. Most recently, he lined up Hollywood stars Rosario Dawson and Dakota Fanning to perform Neil Gaiman’s bestselling young adult story “Coraline.”

"We'll never run out of reruns of television, but I think what you're seeing is people getting creative with what the sort of possibilities are," Rose said. "You're seeing a lot of different reality shows from 'The Voice' to 'American Idol' playing with shooting from home. You're going to see more specials like that."

The shift into new forms of storytelling could throw traditional Hollywood productions into disarray moving forward. Already, filmmakers are feeling the pinch as their scripts sit idle, film festivals cancel screenings and studios wait for the green light from health departments to resume work.

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Michael Matteo Rossi said he had just finished a feature-length script in February and was preparing to shop it around when the coronavirus put a stop to everything. He has continued to send out his script to potential buyers, but there are too many unknowns and producers aren't biting yet.

Instead, Rossi must wait until studios can make bets again on new content.

In the meantime, he said, “people better enjoy watching reruns of their favorite TV shows.”