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Europe’s TV Schedulers Turn to God, News and Clever Editing in Crisis

TV Schedulers Coronavirus
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Scheduling is a dark art at the best of times, but in a global pandemic, the role becomes a Herculean task for broadcasters around the world.

Lockdowns in the U.K., France, Italy and Spain — the four hardest-hit countries in Europe — have proven a boon for broadcasters, who can play to captive audiences, provided they have the pipeline to fill their slots.

With a complete shutdown of all live sports and the cancellation of other major cultural and broadcast events, such as the Olympics, Euro 2020, Glastonbury music festival and the Tour de France, how are schedulers strategizing to fill the voids in their schedules?

Variety spoke to scheduling bosses at major public and commercial broadcasters across Italy, U.K., France and Spain about their gameplans — or lack thereof.

Italy: Rai Turns to the God

As soon as the pandemic broke, the first thing Stefano Coletta, chief of public broadcaster Rai’s flagship channel Rai-1, did after “being forced to shut down several entertainment shows” was “call the Vatican,” he says.

Rai-1 is now airing a live papal mass every morning at 7 a.m. that scores an average 25% audience share “which means I made the right choice,” Coletta notes.

Pope Francis has been an especially frequent fixture on Rai during Easter Week. The Pope’s Good Friday procession, known by its Latin name Via Crucis, held in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square, pulled an average 25% share on Rai-1 in primetime. “The ratings the Pope has been getting are the highest in the history of Italian television,” notes TV analyst Maria Chiara Duranti.

The three pillars of Rai-1 programming these days are “faith, information and entertainment,” says Coletta.

In terms of entertainment, Rai has canceled most shows involving studio audiences but has held on to its Sunday afternoon talk and variety fixture “Domenica In,” albeit in a modified format mostly comprised of live feeds from celebrity guests in their homes.

On the scripted drama front, Rai-1 is scoring stellar ratings — as high as 30% — with new medical procedural “Doc,” which is a mix of “House” and “The Good Doctor” with a distinctive flair.

There’s just one problem: Thursday’s episode left Italian audiences high and dry, as completion of the final four instalments of “Doc,” produced by Lux Vide, have been delayed by the pandemic.

Mediaset, by contrast, has gone forward with most of its top studio shows such as “Celebrity Big Brother” that ended its run April 8 with a strong 23% share and hit talent show “Amici” hosted by Maria De Filippi, known locally as “Italy’s Oprah.”

The indefatigable De Filippi, having wrapped “Amici” in early April, is now segueing with her dating talk show “Uomini e Donne” (Men and Women) that will launch on Canale 5 April 20. Meanwhile Mediaset is holding back on airing fresh dramas and running lots of movie reruns.

London Olympics

U.K.: Universal broadcaster BBC Steps Up News

For U.K. public broadcaster BBC, not only has production suspended on some of its most popular continuing dramas like “EastEnders” and “Casualty,” it has also had to work out how to deal with the chasm in its summer line-up from the cancellation of the Olympics, Wimbledon, Euro 2020 and Glastonbury Festival and the weeks of airtime they filled.

BBC director of content Charlotte Moore admits it’s a “massive challenge” to reschedule the broadcaster’s channels, but notes British schedules are traditionally flexible — certainly more so than the fixed schedules of U.S. broadcasters.

The intense focus on rescheduling and planning during the coronavirus crisis also means that thoughts about who might replace outgoing BBC director general Tony Hall have moved to one side for Moore, a leading candidate for the top job. “Everybody is so focused on the now and dealing with it,” says Moore.

The broadcaster has had a number of priorities when thinking about pandemic programming, though its main focus has been providing trustworthy information about the developing situation to its audiences. “We’re a universal broadcaster, and in these moments where everybody wants to know what is going on, and they need to know the truth, providing reliable and trustworthy information is absolutely what the BBC does best.”

Not surprisingly, viewing figures for BBC News programming has soared during the crisis.

At the same time, Moore notes viewers don’t want to watch rolling news all day, so the BBC has sought to provide a range of programming that “speaks to the nation’s mood” and has kept a number of shows that do this in production during the crisis, including daily magazine program “The One Show,” which Moore says has been as important as news programming in informing and educating because “it’s got a lighter tone.”

The BBC is also moving drama around its schedule to make up for lost programming. The highly anticipated adaptation of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” is due to land as a box set on digital channel BBC Three on April 26. The series was originally meant to play the following day on BBC One in a late night, post 10.30pm slot. But the BBC has brought forward the 12-part series to begin airing on BBC One at 9 p.m., kicking off with two 30-minute episodes and airing weekly afterwards.

The BBC was looking forward to an “amazing summer of sport” this year, says Moore, which will now be delayed till 2021. “Not only does it leave holes in the schedule, but audiences want and love sport.”

To fill the void, the broadcaster is creating “virtual moments to mark these big events.” In July, highlights from London 2012 and Rio 2016 will fill the void for Olympics fans, while classic matches from Wimbledon will also replace coverage of the tennis tournament. In June and July, instead of Euro 2020, the BBC will air memorable international matches — including the best of Euro ‘96 in England.

Elsewhere, new ‘virtual’ event programs include “The Glastonbury Experience,” which plays in the slot when the legendary festival was due to air in June, featuring festival archive and some live performances. “Eurovision: Come Together” will feature classic performances as well as a look at how 2020’s event would have happened.

“We’re not giving up on these events,” says Moore, who explains archive footage will be repurposed and cut to make it relevant to contemporary audiences.

Moore also cautions that when the U.K. emerges from lockdown, “We’re not suddenly going to be back to normal. In many way, our tastes and everything will have changed. What audiences want will have changed, too, and we have to be mindful of that.”

France coronavirus

France: “The real start of the year will be January”

At French commercial broadcaster TF1, Xavier Gandon, head of programming for the network group, says the main challenge during lockdown has been the dearth of new content.

“We haven’t been delivered new episodes of U.S. series because dubbing studios have closed,” says Gandon, “and since we’re airing new episodes so close to the U.S. broadcast, we quickly ran out of dubbed episodes and had to stop broadcasting several shows,” including “Prodigal Son” which just launched on TF1 in March.

TF1 has been maintaining select magazine shows, such as news-driven primetime talk show “Quotidien” on TF1-owned channel TMC. While it’s been deserted by most advertisers during the pandemic, TF1 has continued airing some fresh content, such as the series “Les Bracelets Rouges” albeit with one episode a week instead of two, and has split in two parts new episodes of “The Voice” and “Koh-Lanta” — France’s “Survivor.” TF1 has also scored high ratings with family movies such as “Despicable Me” and “Harry Potter,” and French comedy classics with Louis de Funes, among others.

“As a commercial channel, TF1 lives off advertising revenues so it’s difficult right now, but at the same time, we’ve never had so many people in front of the TV. Television audiences are up 30-40% in France, compared with 10% for streaming services,” says Gandon.

TF1 will soon roll out an at-home edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” which will see celebrities playing for different charity organizations each week. “‘We thought ‘Millionnaire’ would be perfect to adapt as an at-home edition because it’s an iconic game show and it’s made with a shot-reverse shot technique that’s easy to produce,” says Gandon.

He said TF1 hasn’t been too impacted by the rescheduling of sports events, apart from Euro 2020, which has been postponed by a year to June 2021.

Over at public broadcaster France Televisions, aside from library films and series re-runs, it original content has skewed towards children’s programs, news-driven magazine shows, talk shows and cultural content such as plays, all of which fill the holes left by major sports events and commissioned programs.

Some of these talk shows and magazines are being produced with limited resources due to the lockdown, mostly with streamed interviews, as well as a newly-created production hub in Saint-Denis.

“We created this hub in Saint-Denis (on the outskirts of Paris) with a draconian security system that’s allowing us to keep producing fresh content in a safe way during the lockdown,” says Takis Candilis, managing director and head of programming at the multi-channel broadcaster France Televisions.

Some TV magazines like “C’est Dans l’Air,” “C’est à Vous,” “Les Maternelles” and “Affaire Conclue” are continuing production via streamed interviews and videoconferences, while new shows include “La Maison de Lumni,” a six-hour educational program aimed at kids in primary school airing daily, and some health-themed factual programs airing primetime.

Starting in late August with the Tour de France, France Televisions will have to deal with a raft of rescheduled sports events. “Usually, in September we announce our new programming slate for the year, but this year, the real start of the year will be in January,” says Candilis.

“Before that, we’re going to deal with a flood of events, like the Tour de France and Roland-Garros starting (on Sept. 20), a day after the Tour de France ends, and all the soccer and rugby games… That will take over our programming for some time,” adds the executive.

France Televisions will also play an important role in the aftermath of the health crisis. Drama, for example, will be more inward-focused, highlighting French society. “We can’t continue making only cop shows. We need series people can relate to, because a lot of people will come out very damaged by this crisis,” observes Candilis.

Spain coronavirus Maradona

Spain: Audiences Hit Historic Highs in Lockdown

With TV advertising plunging 60-65% in April, according to industry sources, “cost is paramount (and) taste comes second” at commercial networks, says one Spanish broadcast executive of scheduling during COVID-19.

But cost containment cuts several ways. Atresmedia is extending newscasts and news magazines, as their ratings soar, while attempting to contain their costs, says José Antonio Antón, deputy director of content for Atresmedia Television.

Atresmedia Group is also creating a series of COVID-19-related primetime specials, such as April 8’s “En primera línea” (“On the Frontline”), simulcast on both its Antena 3 and La Sexta channels, a look at day-to-day events in Spain’s often overflowing hospital ERs around Spain.

The broadcast network is also pushing back the finale of long-running, hugely popular on-air soaps, such as “El secreto de puente viejo,” by the creation of weekly recaps. The experiment has seen ratings soar by 33% on “Secreto” against pre-crisis averages, and will allow its substitute to bow in a more ad-friendly commercial environment, Anton explains.

Top-rating reunion reality show “Tu cara me suena” has been pushed back given the need to shoot further episodes, he adds.

Spanish TV audiences hit historical records over March 13-15, the first weekend of lockdown,” and most top shows have seen huge ratings boosts, compared to pre COVID-19 levels. Mediaset España’s morning magazine “El programa de Ana Rosa,” for instance, enjoyed a 69% boost.

Meanwhile, public broadcaster RTVE is maintaining new instalments of its biggest bets, including “Master Chef” and original fantasy series “The Department of Time,” the latter pushed back just slightly to accommodate final post-production, according to an RTVE spokesperson.

Spain is far less dependent on acquisitions than France or even Italy. If made, new acquisitions look to be largely targeting contained cost catalog series and movies.