The week of March 9 — when the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson shared the news that they had tested positive for COVID-19 — a cascade of television shows and movies shut their productions down for safety reasons. From “Stranger Things” to “The Batman,” these shutterings are temporary, and sets will be up and running as soon as it’s safe to go back into production — though no one knows when that might be. All told, the pipeline for scripted television and movies for later this year and into 2021 has been decimated. The broadcast networks, unable to shoot any pilots for the 2020-21 TV season, are in uncharted territory. And unless the coronavirus curve flattens soon, the broadcasters, which schedule hours and hours of reality television in the summer, will have to rely almost entirely on repeats.
But there is one corner of television in which the pantry is relatively well-stocked: basic-cable reality shows, the cozy feeling in TV form. Variety spoke to representatives from more than a dozen cablers about their upcoming programming, and found that by premiering new shows as usual while also making use of old inventory top-tier networks such as HGTV, TLC, Bravo, ID, Food Network, Discovery, We TV, E!, History, and A&E would fare a months-long production shutdown practically unscathed. Additionally, they’re making creative use of show marathons — a staple of reality television since “The Real World” in the 1990s. And they’re enlisting popular unscripted stars to interact with fearful viewers, and to self-tape — recordings that will turn into on-air content down the line.
With ad-supported cable television under intense economic pressure due to cord-cutting, this surge in viewership is a welcome respite.
Discovery’s chief brand officer at its factual networks, Nancy Daniels — who oversees Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and Science — says that as news about coronavirus ramped up and productions shut down, her team did immediate assessments of what the channels had for the rest of the year. “We split our shows up into red, yellow, and green,” Daniels says. With a show like the Discovery staple “Deadliest Catch,” she says, they have an entire 26-episode season shot, set to premiere on April 14 — so that’s one for Daniels’ green category.
But a show like “BattleBots,” which airs on Discovery and Science, is red — meaning, there’s no hope for it to air on schedule. “BattleBots” was supposed to go into production this week for three weeks, which would have filled many programming hours starting in May. “When the floodgates open again — and I fully believe they will — we’ll go back into production,” Daniels says. “But what are we going to be able to do with that hole in the schedule? That’s just an all day, everyday conversation.”
Daniels did not mention specific shows they classified as “yellow,” which means there might be issues in delivering episodes. But We TV president Marc Juris says that editing and post-production, which has moved into people’s homes, all at different locations, has made the process “slower than usual,” he says. “The challenge is figuring out what we have, and what we can get — and then what we can turn around to put on the air.” According to Juris, “We’re pretty much good through the end of the summer.”
Discovery has shows like “Bering Sea Gold” (set to premiere on May 8 with an 11-episode season) and “Naked & Afraid” (which is currently airing through May 17, with its spinoff “Naked & Afraid XL” starting the following week for 11 episodes). This weekend, Discovery is also programming “Shark Week in a Weekend,” a two-day long compressed marathon of its hugely popular summer block, which began in 1988.
With most people trapped in their homes, ratings are, of course, spiking. Dave Kaplan, senior vice president of strategic insights and research at Bravo, E!, and Oxygen says that the networks are not only trying to observe viewership patterns, but possibly program to it as well. Live viewing is up, with a show such as “Shahs of Sunset” hitting a multi-year high for its weekly premiere, even though it airs on a Friday night — which “was pretty unbelievable to see,” Kaplan says. But Kaplan adds he’s looking in particular at “outsized interest, separate and apart from just the elevated viewing levels.” For Bravo, he sees bumps for shows that don’t “necessarily require as much pre-existing kind of awareness of the show” — like “Million Dollar Listing,” “Cash Cab” and “Blind Date.” In other words, not Bravo’s docusoaps, but series that have “a little bit of broader appeal.”
“And those are the ones that seem to be seeing the biggest ratings gains,” Kaplan continues, “because they’re shows that I think a lot of couples or partners can watch together and enjoy.”
Daytime viewing is up at twice the rate of primetime, Kaplan says. Over on E!, reruns of USA’s “Chrisley Knows Best” and stacks of “Botched,” the plastic-surgery-gone-wrong cautionary tale, are performing particularly well. Marathons of those shows are up 20-30% and 40%, respectively, when compared to the pre-quarantine period.
Kaplan is also gleaning insight from watching unusual patterns on Bravo’s VOD services. On those platforms, “Manzo’d With Children” (a spinoff of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” starring the comedic Manzo family) and “Top Chef: Just Desserts” (which hasn’t aired since 2011), are both gaining traction. “It’s still relatively lower numbers comparatively, but from a growth rate perspective it’s some of some of our highest growing content,” Kaplan says.
Trends like that might inform Bravo’s linear programming going forward. The channel is certainly getting experimental with its marathons, with the brilliant-but-canceled “NYC Prep,” which ran for a single season in 2009, airing on April 10.
Bravo’s sibling network E! is up 34%, according to Kaplan, when compared to its viewership in early March. And for April, three of E!’s signature shows are airing new episodes, and will continue to for the next few months without interruption: The first half of Season 18 of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” premiered on March 26, the fifth season of “Total Bellas” begins on Thursday and part 2 the sixth season of “Botched” premieres on April 13.
As for Bravo, a spokesperson says the network plans to have all of its currently airing shows premiere without any interruptions and hiatuses in April. Three of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” seasons — “New York City” (Thursday), “Beverly Hills” (April 15) and “Potomac” (May 3) — are returning imminently, which should make their ardent fans happy.
Whether they will air continuously without a hitch is another matter, though: The show is edited as the season progresses in order to make it more dynamic, rather than being finished ahead of time. That means the show’s confessionals — the cast’s solo interviews that provide real-time commentary on what they were thinking — have not all been shot. Lisa Rinna of “Beverly Hills” tells Variety she’s not sure how that will work. “It’s not like Netflix where they do all the shows, and they’re ready to go — I mean, they’re doing the shows as they’re airing them,” Rinna says, wondering out loud. “I don’t know what that’s going to look like. When are we going to do our interviews?” (The Bravo spokesperson says they hope to figure out a way to shoot them when the time comes: the current season of “Vanderpump Rules” will have the same issues.)
Bravo’s reunions for its unscripted shows — wrangled by interrogator Andy Cohen, the “Watch What Happens Live” host and “Real Housewives” executive producer — are on hold for now. “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” reunion, which would have been imminent, couldn’t happen, and other ones will have to be postponed. But Cohen — who tested positive for COVID-19, but is now well enough to do his show from his apartment — aims to do them as soon as it’s safe. “It’s my hope that once this fog is lifted, I literally go do ‘Vanderpump,’ ‘Shahs’ and ‘Atlanta’ just one after the other,” Cohen says.
Production on two “Real Housewives” installments — “New Jersey” and “Orange County” — were shut down, as was “Southern Charm.” The new addition to the “Real Housewives” franchise, “Salt Lake City,” has also been shot entirely, but its premiere has not been dated.
Kathleen Finch, chief lifestyle brands officer at Discovery, oversees TLC, HGTV, Food Network, and Investigation Discovery, which are among the most-watched cable networks. “Our networks are the comfort food of entertainment,” Finch says. “And we see it in our ratings already. Food Network’s ratings have almost doubled; TLC’s ratings are through the roof.” (And she means that: TLC’s primetime ratings for the 25-to-54 demographic it targets are up 111% compared with the same time last year.)
Looking ahead for the lifestyle channels, Finch says, “Our schedule is set for quite a few months.” Some Food Network shows is batch-produced, so the cupboard is especially full for those. “I have enough ‘Chopped’ episodes to go well into 2021!” Finch says. “A lot of what we do is produced in bulk — for ‘Guy’s Grocery Games,’ we’ve got many, many months worth.”
Food Network, HGTV, and TLC have been proactive in enlisting on-air talent, getting them GoPro cameras, and then “giving them how-to-be-a-producer lessons over Skype,” Finch says. They’re engaging with viewers as well: Chef Ina Garten, for instance, has been asking fans on her Instagram what they have in their refrigerators and pantries, and then dispensing recipes.
“It’s just a nice way to say, ‘You’re not alone, we’re doing it too, stick together,’” Finch says. “Our talent are so loved, and they have such huge social fan bases.”
Even Investigation Discovery, the true crime channel, is engaging with its audience, Finch says: “We’re going out to the fans and saying, ‘We’re going to marathon this show all day, you tell us what some of your favorite crimes are that you want to see solved?” And ID star Joe Kenda, otherwise known as the “Homicide Hunter,” tweeted a video comparing the quarantine to World War II, and urging the audience to stay home: “This time, we just have to sit on the couch,” Kenda says in his signature deadpan style.
“If you look on social media, one of the things that we keep seeing is a lot of women who are tweeting, ‘Oh, thank goodness, now I can just sit home all day and watch ID!’” Finch says. “The fans for ID are so rabid, and they love those shows so passionately.”
We TV has urged its casts to self-tape as well, Juris says. As soon as the shutdowns began, executives called talent from “Braxton Family Values,” “Marriage Boot Camp,” “Growing Up Hip-Hop,” and “Love After Lockup” to tell them “shoot everything you can while you’re going through this, because we’re going to want to use it,” he says.
One tangible result of these videos has been the ex-convicts from We’s popular show “Love After Lockup” dispensing advice about living in contained spaces for on-air interstitials. Juris is confident that “Even mundane stuff can be interesting if you’re interested in the person,” he says. “Toni Braxton stuck at home is still interesting, and Toni Braxton on Skype is still interesting.”
At the end of the traditional broadcast season in May, the networks fill their schedules with programming such as “Big Brother” and “Love Island” on CBS, “America’s Got Talent” and “American Ninja Warrior” on NBC, “The Bachelorette” and its spinoffs on ABC, and “So You Think You Can Dance” on Fox. As of now, none of those are in production. (Fox’s “Masked Dancer,” the spinoff of “Masked Singer,” is also on hold.) Filling in the gaps will possibly be Fox’s “Beat Shazam” and “Hell’s Kitchen,” NBC’s “World of Dance,” and CBS’s “Amazing Race.” (ABC did not respond to Variety’s inquiry about its plans for summer programming, or what it might have on its shelves.)
Basic cable’s reality programming will step into that breach. “The world has stopped, but life hasn’t stopped — and that’s an important thing,” Juris says.
Finch says she worked at Food Network during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and remembers that the audience would thank them for providing comfort.
“That’s very much how our team is operating right now,” she says. “We’re reading the emails that people are sending, and reading Twitter — and our fans need us. And that’s really motivating all of us to keep going. Because we know how happy we make people feel. That’s our job, and we feel a real responsibility now to keep that machine going.”
Will Thorne and Audrey Cleo Yap contributed to this report.