From celebrity cameos to out-of-the-box approaches to a host who wanted to preside over a competition series from inside a giant hamster ball, producers of reality TV series thought creatively to ramp up production mid-pandemic.
“Producers produce. They’ll find a way to get it done,” says Clay Newbill, executive producer of ABC’s “Shark Tank. “But this was different. It was difficult to produce in a landscape where the rules are constantly changing. And by rules, I don’t mean the safety protocols. I just mean everything because this impacted every single aspect of production.”
Newbill says “Shark Tank” producers started looking at other locations out of concern that Los Angeles County would still be locked down when the show needed to film in August to get on ABC’s fall schedule. After regular Shark and NBA Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saw an impressive presentation by Las Vegas’ Venetian Resort Hotel Group for producing NBA games in a bubble, he suggested the “Shark Tank” team contact them. The NBA wound up in a bubble at Walt Disney World; “Shark Tank” relocated to the Venetian in Sin City.
Similar shooting location changes became necessary for ABC newcomer “Supermarket Sweep,” which was set to load into its Burbank soundstage the day before the March 2020 shutdown occurred. The show went on hiatus for five months before relocating and filming at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica.
Meanwhile “RuPaul’s Drag Race” didn’t move, but it did have to expand its sets to double the usual workroom size, says Tom Campbell, executive producer and World of Wonder chief creative officer, in order accommodate safety protocols.
The uncertainty of the virus during the early days of being back up and running as a production added to the challenges. “Supermarket Sweep,” for example, began filming “in the time where we thought that you could touch a box of cereal, and maybe leave COVID on that box,” says executive producer Alycia Rossiter. “We needed to clean everything in between rounds.”
This also caused host Leslie Jones to rein in her enthusiasm.
“Leslie would have been way more high five-y and physical with contestants,” Rossiter says. “But even though we were all safe [through rigorous testing], we didn’t know how much the audience knew about the testing we had gone through, and we didn’t want to get a whole lot of negative feedback that we hadn’t been careful in a time where care was really needed.”
Netflix’s “Nailed It! Double Trouble” host Nicole Byer also had to forgo getting close to the contestants, co-host/pastry chef Jacques Torres and each episode’s guest judge.
“I was like, ‘Can I be in a hamster ball?’” she recalls of her conversation with executive producers Casey Kriley and Jo Sharon of Magical Elves. “And they were like, ‘No, we don’t have the capacity to do that.’ So, we sat at the table for the most part.”
Although adding contestants during a pandemic via the “Double Trouble” conceit might seem counterintuitive, Kriley says it was a way to mirror people baking together at home during the pandemic while also helping increase the show’s energy by showing teams of two. They had been tested and were part of their own COVID bubble, interacting together.
Still, the distancing rules threatened to mess with carefully created dynamics between panelists and judges on a number of reality series, including Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” which produced two seasons during the pandemic and even had Niecy Nash step in as a temporary host when Nick Cannon tested positive and had to quarantine.
Panelist Ken Jeong, who also hosts “I Can See Your Voice,” recalls fellow panelist Nicole Scherzinger making jokes about social distancing. She “was at the end of one of the panel tables and she’d always say, ‘I’m stuck here in Hawaii, I wish I could see you guys and say hello!’”
“Masked Singer” executive producer Craig Plestis says a crew member would play recorded audio reactions to what was happening on stage or among the panelists “all with the guise of just creating that sense of a live feel [for those present], because we couldn’t have a [studio] audience.”
It wasn’t any easier for shows launching amid the pandemic, as those crews had to build working relationships from scratch and from behind masks.
HGTV vice president of programming and development Bob Kirsh says early concepts for “Design Star: Next Gen,” the network’s reinvention of “Design Star,” had contestants traveling from town to town undertaking projects in a public setting. To get the show made in the pandemic, they ended up creating a design incubator that was largely outdoors in a single location. Designers had their own small houses to re-design over multiple challenges.
“It really was one of those necessity-being-the-mother-of-invention situations,” Kirsh says. “This turned out to be a really inventive and distinctive way to do the show that served the designers and served the premise.”
CBS’ competition series “Tough as Nails” may have looked as if it had a leg up on its peers because it is mostly produced outdoors in different settings, but that just meant that instead of the single safety plan required for a soundstage-based show, each location required one. One challenge in the second season had to change six times before producers landed on a site that fit the proper return-to-work protocols, says series creator and host Phil Keoghan. Also, unlike at the end of the first season, when contestants’ families visited the set, the second season only allowed for virtual visits.
Zoom may not be the preferred method for all productions, but Campbell says some pandemic-necessitated adjustments may stick around on “Drag Race” in a vaccinated world, including celebrities making live video appearances in the workroom.
“Rarely have the queens been able to just sort of kiki and ask questions [of celeb guests],” Campbell says. “It just created a whole new level of spontaneity and interaction with the queens. There’s no reason that we won’t continue that. We’ll definitely have celebrities on set, but we also know that this is an outlet that we can pursue.”