Unprecedented times call for innovative measures and U.K. public service broadcasters are exploring a range of means to keep a nation in lockdown engaged.
The BBC’s extremely popular “The Graham Norton Show,” for example, will be filmed at the host’s (pictured) home for the first time in its 13-year history with virtual guests, rather than in a studio setting with an audience.
Speaking to Variety, BBC director of content Charlotte Moore describes “an ever moving challenge in trying to work out how to keep our services going.”
“We want to make sure we keep as much of our services going for people. Because, obviously, the need to feel connected, to feel you have information that is relevant to your local area when people are isolated either as families or on their own (is important). Particularly (for) our elderly audience, we need to really make sure that they understand what’s going on,” says Moore.
In the absence of live events and shows, the BBC will try and recreate the live experience as much as possible, in addition to extended news coverage and coronavirus-specific shows, while Channel 4 is looking at cost-effective ‘work from home’ methods of producing popular shows.
“We have a key role to play in helping the country get through lockdown, and that’s a mixture of helping to occupy families to use the time profitably, whether it is to learn something or do up their house in some way,” Channel 4 director of programming Ian Katz tells Variety.
Channel 4’s new offerings include craft show “Kirstie’s House of Craft,” presented by Kirstie Allsop, and “Grime Gran on How Not to be a Dick in a Pandemic,” where octogenarian Margie Keefe offers advice to the nation from self-isolation in her London flat.
Meanwhile, new BBC content includes daytime show “Healthcheck Live U.K.” that will offer advice and companionship during the crisis; 2019 comedy pilots-turned-series “Ellie and Natasia” and “Lazy Susan”; fashion makeover format “You Are What You Wear”; natural history show “Primates”; “The Vivienne Takes On Hollywood,” featuring drag star The Vivienne; and factual series “Models: Street to Catwalk.”
Elsewhere, at a time when schools and nurseries countrywide are closed due to the pandemic, ViacomCBS-owned Channel 5 has made available 250 new episodes of content on its pre-school brand Milkshake! Shows “Daisy and Ollie” and “Ricky Zoom” will launch and there will be at least one new episode available every day from now through August drawn from “Abby Hatcher,” “Floogals” and “Little Princess,” among others.
The fraught situation has also led to some quick production turnarounds. The BBC’s “Hospital Special” — a documentary about how the U.K.’s National Heath Service is dealing with coronavirus at London’s Royal Free — will be filmed, edited and broadcast in weeks.
Even faster is Channel 4’s Fremantle-distributed cooking show “Jamie: Keep Cooking and Carry On,” that was filmed March 19 and aired on March 23. “I think it is probably the quickest produced cookery show in the history of television,” says Katz.
Budget cuts on the horizon
The pandemic’s wide-ranging disruption has also meant broadcasters have had to pause production on a number of shows. The BBC has postponed the shoots of “Line of Duty,” “EastEnders” and “Peaky Blinders,” among several others, while ITV has stopped “Coronation Street” and “Emmerdale.” ITV has reduced its program budget by $116 million, preferring to preserve liquidity.
Meanwhile, the BBC has postponed plans to make the license fee for over-75s free, and it has also halted 450 redundancies proposed in January, meaning a heavy hit to its bottom line.
However, Moore says “it is too early to say,” when asked if there would be further programming budget cuts.
The crisis will eventually lead to programming budget cuts at Channel 4, too. “I think it is inevitable, given the scale of the impact on our revenues that this crisis is going to have,” says Katz.
“We are an entirely advertiser-funded broadcaster, it’s the vast majority of our income and the ad market has been substantially impacted by the crisis, so I think content budget cuts are inevitable.”
Meanwhile, the isolated British public is consuming escapist shows that are attracting audiences in millions, a trend that has been noted by all the broadcasters. Recent episodes of Channel 4’s “Gogglebox” and “Celebrity Bake Off” had audiences in excess of four million each; the BBC’s “The Repair Shop” had an audience of six million for its last episode; ITV’s new sitcom “Kate and Koji” drew more than five million, and old favorite “Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway” pulled in 9.5 million viewers, filmed without an audience for the first time.
Moore says the crisis has also led to an increase in linear television viewership, compared to audiences consuming content on personal devices.
“Many of our loved brands provide real comfort viewing for people,” says Moore. “People are really enjoying sitting as families and watching those. You can really see that families sitting at home together are affecting viewing.”