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Covid-19 builds suspense for fall TV line-up

Somewhere in a desert, a group of young, swimsuit-clad singles have spent their summer trying to find love in the time of Covid — or at least score some cash and a little fame.

They are the latest contestants on CBS's Love Island, an American take on the saucy British reality-TV show of the same name — a name that implies anything but social-distancing. They're also a long way from any islands.

Season 1 was filmed in the tropical oasis of Fiji, but because of the virus, this latest group has instead found itself under strict quarantine in a hotel on the Las Vegas strip. The crystal waters and soothing scent of an ocean zephyr have most likely been replaced by pool water and the unmistakable sting of fresh ethanol or bleach. Nothing takes romance out of the air quite like a nasal swab, but this is what it takes to film during a public-health crisis. The show must go on.

The lengths to which ViacomCBS has gone to safely deliver new seasons of both Love Island and Big Brother to stir-crazy viewers highlight the challenges facing TV networks this year. Love Island premieres next week, while Big Brother returned to air earlier this month.

Big Brother host Julie Chen Moonves, in a recent interview with a CBS station, described flying that show's 16 contestants to Los Angeles so they could each isolate for weeks while being tested regularly before entering the so-called Big Brother house; some tested positive for Covid and were sent packing.

On the spectrum of difficulty of filming during a pandemic, reality-TV shows such as these — along with animated series — have perhaps the fewest hurdles. After all, the contestants are usually sequestered anyway. “We were the original quarantine,” as Chen Moonves put it. But scripted series often require a larger, rotating cast and crew to travel and be on set without the ability to remain in constant quarantine.

This is partly why studios are struggling to get back up and running as the virus continues its spread. Sports leagues are facing similar setbacks, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 college athletic conferences postponing fall sport, including football. Indeed, it would appear that the fall television season is destined to go the way of everything else in 2020.

September traditionally marks the start of the most important TV season as children head back to school and families cozy up indoors in the evenings with a good show. Because so much of the industry focus up to this point this year has been on new streaming-video apps, it's easy to lose sight that traditional live TV remains the lifeblood of companies such as Comcast's NBC, Fox, Walt Disney and ViacomCBS.

The implications of a light or delayed programming season will be far-reaching for the industry, which is already grappling with an exodus of cable-TV subscribers, the evaporation of advertiser demand, a closed box office, a content drought for new streaming-video services and a legal quagmire created by the cacophony of safety issues surrounding TV and film productions.

Each year the industry showcases its fall line-up during the spring “upfront” presentations to marketers, which then reserve their advertising slots. But the uncertainty of 2020 has kept many on the sidelines waiting to see what networks come up with this summer, as filming slowly begins to resume. The November US presidential election at least ensures revenue from political advertisements; however, live sports broadcasts can't promise to be the traditional big payday.

Networks are having to get creative — both in how they film and where they find content to fill any prime-time holes. The season may also have to start a bit later than usual, with new programmes carefully spaced out.

At Fox, the company scrapped Season 17 of So You Think You Can Dance and made the unusual move to pad its September schedule with LA's Finest, a detective drama that originally aired on Spectrum, a cable service owned by Charter Communications.

Fox also has two series that were finished before the pandemic. Filthy Rich, a satirical drama starring Kim Cattrall as a conservative Oprah-like figure, was supposed to arrive last fall and will now premiere on September 21. And NeXt, a psychological thriller about artificial intelligence gone rogue, headlined by John Slattery, arrives on October 6.

Even as Fox cameras begin rolling, chief executive Lachlan Murdoch recently told non-production employees that they will keep working from home for the rest of the year. Murdoch also said on an August 4 earnings call that he is confident the National Football League will come back in the fall — then again, he thought the same thing about college football. (Fox airs Thursday night and Sunday NFL games.)

The explosive hit This Is Us is still on NBC's fall schedule, although it hasn't disclosed a specific premiere date. Actress Mandy Moore told The Today Show that they would normally begin filming right after July 4, but as of last month they hadn't begun yet. In a virtual round table held by California governor Gavin Newsom and members of the entertainment industry in May, Moore's This Is Us castmate Jon Huertas described the hyper-vigilance that would be needed on set as “daunting”.

He said: “Emotionally, of course, we all want to get back to work. But also the actor is going to be the least protected person on set. We can't film with PPE on.”

As far as NBC's other programmes, the singing competition The Voice reportedly will not be ready in time and its Monday slot is being filled by American Ninja Warrior, according to Deadline. Murdoch said earlier this month he “remained hopeful” that Fox's The Masked Singer would still air in the fall.

A disappointing fall line-up and continuing recession will drive more consumers to ditch cable packages in favour of cheaper streaming substitutes. Still, they will not find much consolation because those services are just as affected by the programming shortage. Netflix's relatively full library has made it a notable exception because the company's long production lead time has secured a bigger backlog.

Companies such as AT&T's WarnerMedia and Comcast's NBC have responded by shaking up their leadership ranks and cutting staff as they redirect resources to streaming initiatives. Disney also lost its top streaming executive to TikTok.

Reduce, reuse, recycle is now the theme of the content wars. Mulan, which was set to be one of Disney's biggest box-office hits of the year, is instead going to debut on the Disney+ app on September 4 at the same time it arrives in theatres, or at least any that have reopened by then. Disney+ subscribers, who already pay $7 a month, will have to cough up an additional $30 to stream the movie. Savings bundles reminiscent of the cable-TV era are also making a comeback, with Apple introducing one for Apple TV+ and Viacom's CBS All Access and Showtime services.

For media giants, this fall TV season is about making lemonade from lemons. The takeaway for consumers: slow down or there won't be much left on your watch list other than low-grade reality dating shows and cop dramas. Then again, the election promises to deliver plenty of gripping material on the nightly news.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News

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Published August 18, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 18, 2020 at 9:32 am)

Covid-19 builds suspense for fall TV line-up

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