Fox alternative entertainment head Rob Wade said the quick spread of the COVID-19 delta variant this summer caught everyone off guard — and led to the outbreak of cases registered on the set of “The Masked Singer.”
Last month Los Angeles County’s Public Health department reported 12 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases at Red Studios Hollywood, where “The Masked Singer” was shooting its sixth season. Production wasn’t shut down, however, and Wade says the season — the first with an audience back in studio since the pandemic began — will look and feel much like a return to normal for the show.
But that took a lot of effort — and the outbreak had a “huge impact” on the show, Wade said. “You have to realize with ‘Masked Singer,’ we had done two seasons of ‘Masked Singer’ and a season of ‘Masked Dancer.’ This was our fourth ‘Masked’ franchise within 18 months. It’s all the same crews and production people doing that. Every single one of those productions has been incredibly difficult for various reasons. The tough thing about this one is, we were obviously in a very good position in April, May, and then June the news starts to turn [regarding COVID cases in the country], and I think it caught everyone by surprise. Because obviously there was such a huge amount of people vaccinated. So I think people dropped their guard a bit.
“And then obviously when that happened I think in all different forms of businesses and walks of life, COVID cases increased,” he said. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to make when you’re sort of under the kind of pressures of this pandemic. So I’m just relieved in many ways to be able to get brand new television back on the air in a way that actually and looks and feels like it did, maybe two years ago.”
Wade credits that to the energy of having the audience back. (In recent seasons, they had been digitally inserted, along with pre-taped reactions.) But in regards to bringing back an audience, Wade said he didn’t think that had an impact on the COVID cases: “The audiences are actually something that we can control in a much more fundamental way, because the audience, we were fully vaccinated and tested every day. So as a group they were much less susceptible to infection than everyone else.”
Season 6 of “The Masked Singer” launches Sept. 22 with a new twist: Via the “Take It Off Buzzer,” panelists can buzz in if they think they know a performer’s identity, and if they’re right, the celebrity has to unmask immediately. “It’s just another example of the kind of tongue-in-cheek, fun and madness of the format,” he said. “And that show just really is a joy to watch.”
Meanwhile, Fox is focusing on launching shows produced in the middle of the pandemic, including the ambitious new avatar singing series “Alter Ego” and Gordon Ramsay’s latest entry in the cooking genre, “Next Level Chef,” also featuring Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais.
“We managed to get quite a lot put in the can during COVID which we are now finding scheduling for,” he said.
That means he’s waiting a beat before deciding the fate of several unscripted shows currently in limbo. With one exception: “Labor of Love,” the dating show that followed a woman’s journey to find a mate to procreate with (and was hosted by Kristin Davis), has been canceled. (The show aired in spring 2020).
But otherwise, the word is still out on “America’s Most Wanted,” “Cherries Wild,” “Crime Scene Kitchen,” “Game of Talents,” “Holmes Family Effect,” “The Masked Dancer,” “Mental Samurai,” “Name That Tune” and “Ultimate Tag.”
“Most Wanted” is owned by Fox, so Wade said there’s no deadline to make a decision on the revival, which returned this spring with host Elizabeth Vargas. As for “Masked Dancer,” Wade said he’s happy with the show, “we just got to figure out where and when it should come back.”
And then there are the others, and “We’re still considering what to do with each of them,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate in a lot of things that have we brought through have done well. ‘Name That Tune,’ ‘Crime Scene Kitchen.’ We’re in that difficult position now where we have to make a decision on what’s coming back and that’s going to determine how much new stuff we can have. It’s a really hard decision, as you can imagine, because you have to sort of weigh out the possibilities.
“It’s like being at a blackjack table and you know you’ve got a good hand, but do you throw it back and see if you can do better? And maybe you’ll get another ‘Masked Singer,’ or ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ or whatever. It’s a difficult decision to make because all the shows have gone well, or well enough to think, ‘I can bring that back and it would absolutely do a good number,’ but now we have to sort of weigh all those things up. That’s really determining on how much new stuff we buy.”
As for fan favorite “Lego Masters,” which airs its Season 2 finale on Sept. 14, Wade said he’s discussing the show’s fate right now with producer EndemolShine North America. “We’re figuring out what we can do for Season 3,” he said. “How it may be different and exciting and keep the level of production up on that. But we’re very happy with how that show has gone. It’s a good performer in live-same-day, and it’s a very good performer on delayed viewing. There’s a huge amount of very loyal fan base, so we’re really happy with that one. We want to make sure that we’re approaching Season 3 with the right creative energy.”
Meanwhile, Wade said he’s still open to making deals like the one Fox Entertainment made recently with Gordon Ramsay. As part of that rich, nine-figure pact, the chef, restaurateur and TV star joined forces with Fox to form a new joint venture, Studio Ramsay Global.
“We’re very well funded, and we have a huge advantage at Fox of being nimble,” Wade said. “This is probably the most entrepreneurial media company out there. And I think that DNA sort of goes throughout the company. So, yes, absolutely, I think there are other multi purpose acquisitions on the horizon. And it doesn’t have to be a production company, it may be in other forms, in any way we feel like we can add to our business.”
As for programming for Fox’s Tubi AVOD service, so far the unscripted original fare has been mostly in the documentary space, but Wade said he sees opportunity. “Tubi is obviously nascent, no one quite owns the free space at the moment,” he said. “And I think that sort of battleground is open and I think we are building our house to originals on a platform like that. I don’t think it’s fully formed yet, but I definitely believe it’s one of the paths for us to win.”