How is this for tragic irony? For decades, network executives have been trying to break out of the traditional development cycle with little success. It may take a cataclysmic event like the current global coronavirus pandemic to finally do that.
The fast-spreading outbreak has shut down or postponed production on about 50 scripted series across broadcast and streaming; ultimately, all shows are expected to grind to a halt, and some will end up delivering shorter seasons.
The pandemic is also threatening to derail pilot season with the vast majority of pilots delayed or shut down.
I hear Universal Television has put all of its broadcasting pilots on hold. None will go into production for at least the next two weeks and likely longer, I have learned. CBS TV Studios is not proceeding with production on their drama pilots. By midday Friday, the shutdown had carried over to the studio’s comedy pilots. CBS TV Studios alluded to that in their statement about response to the coronavirus. “Over the past few days, we began making decisions to temporarily postpone production on some of our pilots and current series,” the studio said Thursday night.
Impacted are some of the highest-profile titles of 2020 pilot season, Clarice, The Equalizer starring Queen Latifah and Ways & Means headlined by Patrick Dempsey, on CBS, and Langdon on NBC.
I hear Disney TV Studios and Warner Bros. TV have not made final decisions on their outstanding pilots but both are seriously considering pushing at least some. One of the pilots that is being discussed for a delay is the Fox/20th TV dramedy The Big Leap. It has been gearing up for production in Chicago, the place of the first known case of a TV production member infected with coronavirus; the person worked for a series produced by the same studio, NeXt. If The Big Leap is pushed, I hear it may be all the way to June.
(UPDATE: DTS later on Friday announced that it is postponing start of production on all of its in-cycle pilots, including co-productions with other studios, as well as the straight-to-series The Big Sky. Warner Bros. also confirmed that they are pushing what I hear is a large portion of its pilots. In the end, as revealed in the followup to this story, Coronavirus: As Almost All Broadcast Pilots Shut Down, Who’s Left, What’s Next & Will Bubble Shows Get A Boost?, only one pilot has been shot so far, CBS comedy B Positive, and two others remain filming with the intention to finish, Fox/Lionsgate comedy This Country and the CW/WBTV drama Lost Boys.)
June would normally be considered off-cycle, but this year, the so-called cycle is being turned on its head by the coronavirus crisis. Yesterday, all broadcast networks canceled their glitzy in-person May upfront presentations, which have served as the culmination and finish line of pilot season. All have opted for alternative ways to present their new shows and lineups to advertisers, largely televised/streamed presentations without audience.
Of the broadcasters, only CBS specified in their statement announcing the cancellation that their replacement event, a “video Upfront special,” will be posted online the same day as the network’s staple upfront gala at Carnegie Hall. The other networks did not list a date, possibly giving themselves flexibility to go away with tradition and present their new programming later, thus reducing the pressure to have finished, tested and screened pilots by mid-May.
Even before the events of the last couple of days, there had been signs that things would be different this pilot season because of the coronavirus. Several networks limited travel to set for their executives, multi-camera pilots started filming without studio audience. But when the virus’ rapid spread engulfed Hollywood — and the rest of the world — it became clear that drastic measures would be required.
With the health of employees at stake and authorities banning large gatherings in the U.S. and around the world this week, across-the-board production shutdowns were inevitable.
Because of the fast-moving situation and the uncertainty surrounding the spread of the virus, It is unclear when many of the 2020 broadcast pilots will be made. That may boost chances of bubble shows getting renewed for next season as networks will need content for fall.
Then there is the threat of a writers strike on May 1. Given the extraordinary circumstances, with Hollywood, along with the rest of the world, in turmoil, trying to slow the spread of the virus, I had been hearing chatter that the current contract could be extended.
If that doesn’t happen and there is a strike, the consequences may be devastating, industry insiders say.
The impact from the coronavirus pandemic on TV production already has been as profound as a prolonged writers strike. As Deadline reported last month, a writers’ strike will likely accelerate scripted programming’s decline on linear television, especially on broadcast where networks have been increasingly relying on live, unscripted and sports programming.
If the coronavirus crisis is followed by a writers strike, the double whammy may be too catastrophic for the broadcast networks to recover from, observers note.