As country after country went into lockdown at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in March, international “Big Brother” houseguests, blacked out from all news, had no idea there was a pandemic.
“Big Brother” has essentially been quarantining contestants since the show debuted in 2000, long before the coronavirus. With a premise of housing strangers under one roof with no contact with the outside world, it would seem the CBS reality show would have a leg up when it comes to returning to production. But that’s not the case. When the reality show began work on its 22nd season this summer, marking one of the first major U.S. shows to resume production after the industrywide shutdown, strict health and safety protocols were put into place, with houseguests getting tested and undergoing a mandatory quarantine period — prior to entering the house for their “TV quarantine.”
“Big Brother” is just one of many competition shows across the Big Four networks that has had to face a new reality in order to film during the pandemic. With scripted projects struggling to get back up and running, broadcasters are counting on unscripted content to fill fall schedules this year.
But where unscripted programming differs from scripted is in the fact that the majority of the drama on reality shows stems from sheer spontaneity. So how does a production successfully create a level of upredictability on-screen — and adhere to safety regulations — when the most unrehearsed part of showbiz today is COVID-19?
“The big question was whether we could do it, and we were facing a lot of headwinds early on. The biggest headwind was safety,” says Fox reality chief Rob Wade. “The second concern was bringing it back to the standards that we had. You don’t want to bring back a show that’s not as good as the high standards that you set for yourself, both in production value and the level of celebrity that we included.”
“The Bachelorette” — known for taking production around the globe on private jets and helicopters to the most romantic locations on Earth — had to film in a single spot after the series, which typically airs in spring, was shut down in mid-March. The show’s new season will premiere in October, after filming at a resort near Palm Springs that was completely rented out for the cast and crew, who lived on-site for the duration of the shoot.
“You had to get two giant corporations to sign off, with The Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros.,” says Rob Mills, ABC’s top unscripted executive, when explaining the rigors of the safety precautions on “The Bachelorette.”
Aside from the entire team living on-site, regular nasal swab testing took place, all individuals in the control room had to wear N95 masks, frequent hand-washing was necessary and crew members sat across from each other at long tables during meals, staying socially distanced at all times.
“When you go to craft services, one person was handing food to you. You could not touch anything,” Mills explains of his time on the set. “You acted as if you didn’t know that everyone in this little fake city had tested negative. Nothing was left to chance.”
Applauding the commitment of the cast and crew, who left their families and day-to-day lives for nearly three months, Mills admits the isolated shoot was not easy. “It absolutely was a grind, and it was tough,” he says. “It was a marathon. Everyone knew we just need to get to the end, and that’s the prize.”
With “The Bachelorette” going off without a hitch, the network is feeling confident going into production on the flagship “Bachelor,” which will also be shot in a sequestered location this fall, targeting a premiere in early 2021.
ABC’s fall slate is full of reality programming, so for the first time ever “Bachelorette” will be airing concurrently with “Dancing With the Stars,” which debuted earlier this month and faces the daunting task of producing not only a live competition show every week, but one where celebrity contestants and pro dancers are required to touch each other.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be interesting, because dancing is the opposite of social distancing,’” judge Derek Hough says.
Mills, who also oversees “Dancing” at ABC, says the network was immediately on board when executive producer Andrew Llinares, along with the BBC Studios’ Los Angeles production team, presented their plan to safely execute the season, which includes testing at least five times per week and enforced social distancing, with the pro dancers — and even married couples — living apart for the duration of the season. A pod system is being enforced where each dancing duo interacts only with necessary and limited individuals, such as their dedicated hair and makeup team. That way the production can accurately trace who has been in contact with whom.
“You knew that you were in good hands there and safer than you are almost anywhere,” Mills recalls.
Aside from new host Tyra Banks, the ballroom has a very different look for Season 29. Most notably, the studio audience has been replaced by lights and LED screens. After longtime head judge Len Goodman was forced to stay in the U.K. due to travel restrictions, Hough took the third seat at the 20-foot-long judges’ table, which allows for an eight-foot distance between him and returning judges Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba. (Goodman will appear virtually throughout the season from the U.K.)
“It felt so great to be live in the ballroom on premiere night,” Llinares told Variety after the show’s debut. “It’s been an incredibly challenging year putting the show together under the current and ever-changing circumstances.” He added that he and everyone else in the control room remains masked, eight feet apart and separated by plexiglass.
Production is not the only element to be impacted by the pandemic. For “Dancing,” which is regularly covered by international media on a weekly basis, the network’s PR team had to get creative. Instead of a press line backstage after each show, virtual interviews are being conducted with reporters at home and contestants in their trailers.
“The Masked Singer” is broadcast TV’s biggest show, so it’s no surprise that Fox was eager to get its wacky singing competition back on air to anchor the network’s schedule.
“It is the perfect antidote to the pandemic,” Wade says. “It’s a crazy, lunatic show. There is nothing in this show that is really going to keep you in touch with reality, which sounds weird, but it’s escapism in its purest form.”
With choreography, singing, costume fittings and the daunting task of learning to perform with the weight of a heavy mask, social distancing is certainly not an ideal addition. To make things work, the format was restructured and truncated, resulting in a very short time commitment from celebrity contestants, who were required to do in-studio shooting for only three days. All training was conducted with coaches via Zoom.
Similarly, over at NBC, “American Ninja Warrior,” which filmed in a quarantined dome, shot the entire season in just eight days.
Hit dating show “Love Island,” on CBS, also had to rejigger plans and quarantine its cast, shooting the season sequestered in a bubble at a Las Vegas hotel, rather than traveling overseas to Fiji.
Field shoots on “Masked Singer” were eliminated and replaced by animated packages, and to avoid big set-pieces that require more manpower, virtual reality took over the stage. The number of dancers and props was drastically decreased, though there were new jobs in production this season for mask cleaners, who sanitized the masks hourly.
“No other people came in contact with the costumes, other than the costume department,” says executive producer Craig Plestis, adding that talent learned to hook up their own microphones and put on their own cumbersome outfits, to avoid a full team of dressers. Zones were created on set, and those who were around talent were tested multiple times per week.
Given the bizarre nature of the series, the creative team was able to embrace coronavirus restrictions, which Plestis says actually forced his team to showcase the show’s wild side even more — an unintentional advantage that “Masked Singer” has over many other series facing the same COVID-19 challenges.
“We tried to make everything as socially distanced as possible, so we used drones that would fly around the set, and we had robots coming in delivering clues,” Plestis says.
Another unforeseen advantage of the pandemic is the talent pool “Masked Singer” was able to attract. When the world is in a state of normalcy, many musicians are on tour or recording, making them unavailable to participate in a reality show, but with live events and concerts shut down, Fox says it nabbed big names.
Still, the production process wasn’t easy.
After safety, perhaps the biggest hurdle across productions comes down to costs. With testing, PPE and COVID compliance officers required on set 24/7, budgets have been markedly increased. Insiders say the budget on “Masked Singer” rose by roughly 15% this season, due solely to safety protocols and testing — and that’s without considering unexpected costs that inevitably pop up.
On “Masked Singer,” augmented reality technology was a pricey expense, as was flying celebrities on private aircraft, in order to make them comfortable traveling to participate in the show.
Wade recalls the anxiety of committing to the program in mid-July, right around the time cases were spiking in Los Angeles, where “Masked Singer” shoots. As California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti were teasing the possibility of another lockdown, Fox was booking crews and laying out money.
“All of a sudden, you’re basically in Vegas,” Wade says. “You’re needing to make educated guesses on things that you really don’t know the outcome. There are some costs you can recoup when you shut down, but there are others you just can’t.”
Health officials told the network they were confident in the ability to start the season, but news stories were saying otherwise.
“When everyone is reporting that it’s dangerous out there and everything is shutting down, how do you think that affects crews and celebrities showing up? It’s a personal decision,” Wade says. “But we work with brilliant people who put together a massively robust plan and made everything safe.”
A built-in safety bonus: judge Ken Jeong, who is also hosting Fox’s new series “I Can See Your Voice,” which filmed during the pandemic prior to “Masked Singer” resuming production on its fourth season. “We have something that a lot of other shows don’t; we have a doctor on our panel: Dr. Ken,” Plestis says of Jeong, who was a physician before entering the entertainment business. “Trust me, he went over all of our protocols.”
In the early days of the pandemic, “Masked Singer” was in post-production on its third season, enabling it to get on air with new episodes when other shows were in a drought. In contrast, “America’s Got Talent” was in the midst of production and shut down in mid-March, but had enough auditions filmed to make it to air. After shifting course many times, including filming without an audience and taking production to a giant outdoor set, the NBC series was able to successfully broadcast its entire season throughout the summer.
“For our international acts who tape performances abroad, everyone working on those shoots is tested in accordance with the rules of that particular country,” executive producer Sam Donnelly explains, adding that the process on set in the U.S. was very thorough, using guidelines set by various guilds and unions.
On the outdoor set in Southern California, judges Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara — who were required to wear masks at all times, except when on camera — arrived in classic cars and sat in director’s chairs, watching remote performances on a big screen, reminiscent of a drive-in movie theater.
While certain elements, like an outdoor theater on “AGT,” look different from what viewers are accustomed to seeing on their favorite reality shows, some tropes cannot change. Consider “The Bachelorette.”
“Everyone was tested so they could do everything they’d do on a normal season, like kissing and hugging and everything else,” Mills quips. With a laugh, he adds, “It’s not socially distanced in any way, shape or form.”