The (Talk) Show Must Go on: How Daytime TV Has Safely Continued Production Amid the Pandemic

Wendy Williams covid
Courtesy of The Wendy Williams Show

When Drew Barrymore launched her talk show this fall, she had no clue that she wouldn’t be chatting with her guests face-to-face. But since debuting in September, she’s conducted digital interviews with A-listers such as Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway and Cameron Diaz.

If you watched the premiere episode of “The Drew Barrymore Show” at home, you would’ve thought Diaz was seated right next to the talk show host and Lucy Liu for a “Charlie’s Angels” reunion on Barrymore’s new set in New York City. In reality, she was 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, filming in front of a green screen, which beamed onto the stage so realistically, even Barrymore couldn’t believe her eyes.

“It’s so flawless, it’s insane. I still don’t understand how they’re doing it. It’s freakish,” Barrymore says of the hologram-like technology. “We are now incorporating shots of the green screen because nobody was getting that this was even happening. People have come on our show, and they’ve gotten calls from people that are mad, like, ‘Why did you come to New York and not call me?’ It’s so crazy.”

The only daytime talk show to debut during the pandemic, “The Drew Barrymore Show” underwent severe creative changes from the time it was in development. As Barrymore was witnessing Hollywood — and the world — go into lockdown in early 2020, she wasn’t sure the show would ever make it to air.

“I was absolutely not certain. Even today, I’m certain of nothing,” Barrymore recalls, speaking over the phone. “It was an amazing experiment to work so hard on something because they kept saying ‘keep going!’ but with an asterisk that this could fall apart at any moment.”

Once it became clear that the show’s creative had to drastically shift with pandemic protocols, Barrymore, who serves as host and executive producer, began working with the production designer to re-think her traditional TV set. She brought up “Bladerunner” and former Academy Awards telecasts as references for her new-and-improved studio, in the age of coronavirus. “I wanted to be very cinematic,” she says. “I wanted to do this very futuristic. I wanted every wall on our set that is a screen to be the entire wall.”

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Cameron Diaz films an interview with Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu from Los Angeles, beaming onto “The Drew Barrymore Show” set in New York City, via CBS VFX technology. CBS

The state-of-the-art technology on “The Drew Barrymore Show” is just one example of how the genre has creatively bent over backward to make things work while the TV business has been flipped upside down.

Like everything else in Hollywood, talk shows went into hibernation last spring due to COVID-19, as hosts started broadcasting from their homes. For Barrymore, that was never an option.

“I basically kicked and screamed and said, ‘I will do this show on a street corner with a camera and me and one person. I’m not doing a home show. I don’t want to do it. I don’t like watching them,’” Barrymore says. “I love what Jimmy Fallon did with his, and I thought a lot of people really rose to the occasion and did some extraordinary things. But the reason a lot of the home shows were so exciting to watch is because they were well-established. I was scared that if I started a home show, I would stay stuck there. It terrified me.”

Even though her bosses had warned her that the show could very likely move forward in that direction, Barrymore, who is very protective over her children, was determined to do everything she could to avoid a show produced in her home.

“I keep my kids off of social media. I don’t show them,” the former child star says. “I was honestly very anxious. I would never want to do a television show about me and my home and my children.”

Now, during the first November sweeps amid a global pandemic, most daytime shows have returned to set, following the lead of Fallon’s “Tonight Show,” which in July became the first late-night show to return to its studio at 30 Rock.

Tamron Hall, whose Disney/ABC show has been renewed for a third season, went back to her set in September without a live studio audience, after filming on an iPhone and iPad from the kitchen of her New York City home for months. Kelly Clarkson is also back on set at Universal Studios, after broadcasting from her Montana ranch. Both of the sophomore talkers are displaying the most potential growth in the genre this season.

“Dr. Phil,” which typically shoots in front of a 300-person crowd, is back with virtual guests at Paramount Studios and remains the top-rated syndicated talk show this season with a 1.9 live-plus-same-day national Nielsen rating, only slightly ahead of the morning’s favorite duo, Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, at 1.8, who filmed apart for five months — with Ripa unexpectedly quarantining with her family in the Caribbean –before returning to their set, which features a new desk that seats the two farther apart but, through special effects, creates the illusion that the hosts are seated side by side.

The ladies of “The Talk” are also back in the studio, but instead of their communal roundtable, they are now socially distanced in separate chairs — save for Eve, who is digitally joining from across the pond on a screen that’s physically situated right alongside her co-hosts on set. However, that distance led to the rapper’s decision to depart the show at the end of 2020. “It’s been a crazy year obviously for all of us, and I’ve been so grateful that I’m able to stay here in London and do the show. But I can’t see, for me, the foreseeable future of traveling back,” Eve announced on a recent episode.

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Crew members wear masks on the set of “Tamron Hall” for the host’s 50th birthday celebration episode. Tamron Hall Show

There are some exceptions in the daytime space, with a few shows continuing to shoot remotely.

Rachael Ray has been filming from her upstate New York home. Panel shows “The Real” and “The View” have their co-hosts film remotely from different locations — Sara Haines is the only co-host working out of the New York studio, while Ana Navarro is working from a Miami studio; Meghan McCain, who is now on maternity leave, was working from ABC News’ DC Bureau, while Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar and Sunny Hostin are all broadcasting from their homes. Even while filming remotely, “The View” has pulled off its most-watched season in six years (2.1), ranking as the top show in households among all network and syndicated talk shows in the daytime space, thanks to its heavy pivot to politics during an election year.

Of course, for the shows that have returned to set, things aren’t at all the same. There’s no studio audience, for one.

With one of the most rabid fan bases in television, Wendy Williams is usually greeted by hundreds of “Wendy Watchers,” who line up around the block outside her Chelsea studio in the wee hours, hoping to get a seat at the gossip gabfest. These days, Williams’ set is almost unrecognizable without a live audience, which has been replaced by a small sampling of staff members wearing masks.

“When I first sat in the studio and watched one of our shows taping, it felt like more of a loss than it really was when I went back into the control room and saw it on television,” says “The Wendy Williams Show” executive producer David Perler.

“We have quite a large studio space and over one hundred bodies that have come a long way from other countries and states and all around the city, screaming and yelling, so standing on the floor without that, it felt like maybe it was going to be more drastic of a change than it actually turned out to be.”

While the studio may be emptier — and quieter — than usual, production has gone to great lengths to make the show feel normal, even keeping a warmup emcee who does the full routine each day, via Zoom, for Williams’ virtual at-home audience, who sign up on the show’s website.

“It’s a hot ticket — even the virtual audience,” says Perler, who is thrilled the show can still employ the audience department, while many other media companies have been forced to make cuts. “We want to make sure that we give as much of the in-studio experience to these virtual viewers as possible. We wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for our ‘co-hosts,’ and that’s why Wendy treats them like her co-hosts, not like an audience.”

Bringing productions back to set, even partially, is no easy feat.

At “The Wendy Williams Show,” the entire basement of the massive studio has been converted into a COVID-19 testing station where a medical staff is present at all times, administering weekly tests for every production employee and in-studio guest. In fact, the saliva tests have become so routine in the strange new world, the familial staff competes with a leaderboard to see who can spit in a tube the quickest.

Crew members who work closely with Williams, like her stage manager and “Hot Topics” producer, get tested three times a week, and the hair and makeup artist wears a full-body cape, a mask and a face shield. Each dressing room is deep-cleaned before each new guest arrives, and everyone on set is given a wristband once they are cleared to enter the building, sanitize, get a hands-free temperature check and log into a system that contact traces on-set personnel.

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Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest sit at a socially-distanced desk on the set of “Live!” but, on-screen, appear to be seated next to each other, thanks to special effects. ABC Entertainment

After a dramatic summer, Ellen DeGeneres was eager to return to the studio and reengage with her viewers this season. Unlike every other show in the daytime space, DeGeneres has a real-life audience.

“You’re spaced six feet apart. We’ve got as many of you in here as possible, and please: When you dance, try not to drift,” DeGeneres said to her studio audience during her first episode back.

DeGeneres’ audience comprises about 40 live members, who are positioned next to virtual members on screens. Attendees are selected from a backlog of roughly 4,000 fans, who had applied in the first-come-first-serve lottery between the months of March and May, when production was first shut down. Prior to the pandemic, fans could come from anywhere in the world, but due to quarantine protocols for those who fly, all in-studio audience members are now locals within driving distance to the Warner Bros. lot.

“The hallmark of the show is the audience interaction,” a source close to production says. “To have the show without that would be a shock to the system.”

All audience members are tested prior to entering the building. On top of that, Warner Media has also enacted robust rules, exceeding the government-mandated guidelines. Celebrity guests are also tested, and their entourages are no longer welcome to accompany them on-set.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s very laborious,” the production insider says of returning to the studio. “We’re thrilled to be back, but it requires an enormous amount of attention and detail because our number one priority is to keep everyone safe and to keep it going. It’s a lot of work and a lot of money.”

Like any other show, if COVID-19 cases continue to spike at a rapid rate, L.A. country could force “Ellen” to nix her in-studio audience. “If we feel it’s not safe, we would shut it down on our own,” the production source adds.

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Eve digitally joins her co-hosts on “The Talk” from London, where she has been based during the quarantine. CBS

For the few medical shows in the daytime space, returning to the studio was a no-brainer, during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic when viewers have a need for 24/7 information.

“It was critical that we get back on set to be able to cover the many breaking news angles of this pandemic,” says Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose show halted production in the spring after an employee tested positive for the virus. For the current 12th season, “The Dr. Oz Show” is back in the studio three days per week, and select segments are filmed from Oz’s home studio, where he regularly does affiliate and press hits to fulfill around-the-clock requests, in response to ever-changing details surrounding COVID-19.

“On set, I’m able to use animations, special graphics, and demonstrations that help explain the many complicated medical angles of COVID-19,” Oz adds, noting that approximately 70% of his staff is working from home.

All productions — daytime and late-night — have to meet state and local guidelines, meaning the majority of show employees work from home, while necessary crew members and producers work on-set, adhering to strict social distancing guidelines and partaking in regular testing, numerous times per week.

At “The Doctors,” which just celebrated its milestone 2,000th episode, the entire staff works remotely and there are no in-studio guests. On tape days, a skeleton crew is present on the set in Stamford, Conn., which for Season 13, was reimagined to become virtually immersive, enabling the crew to change the environment remotely and digitally render the backdrop in real time with minimal on-set changes, limiting interaction in the studio.

“COVID is one of the biggest medical stories of our time, and we thought it was important to have the right resources in place to be able to do high-quality reporting on this critical topic, but it also gave us the opportunity to re-think how we produce the show, and evolved from being a panel show with a live studio audience to a single host, Dr. Ian Smith, on a new, more intimate set,” says executive producer Jay McGraw. “This shift allows us to closely follow protocols, while still creating a dynamic series.”

Despite the great effort put in place on all daytime shows, numbers are still down across the entire genre this season, with syndication ratings almost uniformly lower than they were in the spring — though ratings analysts predict that over time being in-studio will increase viewership in comparison with at-home productions. Daytime audiences were declining long before the pandemic: The traditional TV viewing experience had been weakening for the past decade with the explosion of viewing options; this year, syndication was hit even harder as cable news boomed in an election cycle, and homeschooling is believed to have cut into daytime viewing for parents.

But as the world remains in the uncertain state that it’s in for the foreseeable future, with many people staying home all day and craving connectivity, the escapist nature of daytime talk shows may be all the more important.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 18, 2020 issue of Variety magazine.