Editors’ Note: The television business is in a state of flux as the global coronavirus pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives and hit the economy. This is one of several stories that will look at how the non-scripted industry is dealing with the crisis.
During the 2007-2009 recession, shows like CBS’ Undercover Boss and History’s Pawn Stars launched, striking a chord with viewers. There is, once again, optimism in the unscripted community that they can help lift the nation’s spirits during the current global pandemic, which also could throw the U.S. into recession. Additionally, reality is more nimble than drama and comedy in getting original programming on the air.
“I think there’s going to be a ton of opportunity for non-scripted,” David George, CEO of ITV America, tells Deadline. “If you go back to the last economic downturn, you saw unscripted pop out of that and even going back to the writers’ strike, there was a non-scripted boom out of that. The ability to get stuff on air quicker is going to see increased demand and we’re already deep in discussions with what we’re developing at the moment, what we’ll take out once this lifts and what we’re doing long-term.”
Eli Holzman, CEO of Industrial Media, previously ran Studio Lambert USA, which first aired Undercover Boss on CBS in 2010, not long after the Great Recession. Although the show, developed by Stephen Lambert and first commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, was developed pre-crash, Holzman says it struck the right tone to become a hit.
“It was optimistic; it was a time when we were seeing CEOs getting berated in front of Congress and here was some execs interested in what their staff were doing. I absolutely think we will see that sort of thing – uplifting, heart-warming formats – emerge now, whether it’s silly memes that we’re all sending each other or looking for light fare to watch at night, we all need a bit of that. All we’ve been doing is dreaming up ideas that we can film under these conditions, things that might work right now and would be ready to go, that’s our focus,” he says.
Another show that succeeded out of the back of the last crash was History’s Pawn Stars. The show, which was produced by Leftfield Pictures, launched in July 2009. Leftfield founder Brent Montgomery, who now runs Wheelhouse Group, tells Deadline, “We were very fortunate that on the back of the last global recession, we decided to self-fund a bunch of sizzle reels when people were taking their marbles home and one of them happened to be Pawn Stars. I think we’ll look back in a few years and each development team will be able to say that was a Corona-timed idea that we only came up with because of what happened.”
The coronavirus is a very different beast compared with the last financial crash, but many are hoping something good comes out of this chaos. Znak & Co. founder Natalka Znak (Fox’s Ultimate Tag) says her team is figuring out what kind of social experiments might work when this clears up and that tone is particularly important. “Everybody is trying to work out what that interesting, hit show that comes out of this or a new way of making shows. All fear aside, given that it feels like the end of the world, something interesting is going to come out of this,” she adds.
ITV America, similarly, is looking at what shows might appeal to broadcasters when the epidemic is over. It is hoping to secure a U.S. remake of British physical quiz show Catchpoint, and is considering bringing U.S. contestants over to film on the BBC set once allowed. It also going to take another stab at 5 Gold Rings, which was piloted at NBC, and has seen Stateside interest in Rat in the Kitchen, a cross between The Masked Singer and Hell’s Kitchen, which is in development with the BBC.
Non-scripted buyers say they are open for business and many are trying to be proactive to find workarounds, but there are question marks about how much cash they are willing to spend, particularly on projects that might not be at the same level that they’re used to, and there are a plethora of other problems including what to do with their late-night schedules.
Industrial Media’s Holzman, whose company is involved in shows such as American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and TLC’s 90 Day Fiance, adds, “I’ve heard about straight-to-series orders rolling in at an accelerated rate, both for things that might be able to be produced now but also for shows that could be produced the moment that the more austere restrictions around production are relaxed, something that could be up and running quickly. Non-scripted absolutely has an advantage over scripted in these times.”
Ari Mark, co-founder and co-president of Cooper’s Treasure and Cold Case Files producer Ample Entertainment, says that while networks say they are open for business, one of the downsides of the coronavirus is not being able to go and pitch face-to-face. Ample has a project set with Mark Wahlberg and his production company Unrealistic Ideas, and he jokes that while buyers will take an email pitch or via Zoom, they’d rather spend time with the Spenser Confidential star than him. “It’s a nightmare because momentum is everything in this business and most producers aren’t patient,” he adds.
The company was also lucky in terms of timing with its History documentary series The Lost Gold of World War II, which just finished filming its second season in the Philippines and is now fully in post to meet an earlier-than-planned delivery alongside The Curse of Oak Island.
Tony Tackaberry, who runs Cash Cab producer Lion Television USA, calls it a “pretty, bloody crazy” time and a daily process of adapting. The All3Media-owned company is currently producing Season 2 of crime series Caught on Camera for Investigation Discovery and Tackaberry says that show is a model for its “corona-proof” development as it’s shot entirely on Skype and using archive. Surprisingly, the company recently scored a greenlight for an engineering doc series shot entirely in China. “You can imagine our surprise. It also tells you about where China is [with the virus] and that there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel.”
While he adds that these types of situations bring out creativity and innovation, he cautions, “You don’t want to be too much of an ambulance chaser or opportunist.”
Laura Michalchyshyn, chief creative officer and co-president of content at Blue Ant Studios, producer of Netflix’s The Healing Power of Dude, tells Deadline, “We are hearing from buyers that though it’s not necessarily ‘business as usual,’ it’s business now virtual. We’ve been having active conversations with buyers across the world about their immediate content needs to fill any holes that this scenario has created, as well as their future needs. As the industry is recalibrating, we’ve continued to hold digital meetings with our partners and buyers via FaceTime and Zoom, and have conducted several successful pitch meetings using these channels.”
Znak, who had to shut down prison shoots for the Netflix true-crime series I Am Killer, agrees that the challenge now is to come up with “virus-friendly” shows and production models.
“Clearly clip shows and archive shows are virus friendly, they can be done remotely, shows that we can repackage. Then there’s the shows that you can produce with a minimum amount of people in the near future,” she adds.
Toronto-based producer Cream Productions, which is making docu-drama Age of Samurai for Netflix, is in post with The Story of Late Night doc series for CNN. CEO David Brady says it is working up a variety of clip shows, or archive shows, as he prefers to call them. “There are also a lot of people at home, even celebrities, that are a bit bored so if we can find a way to Skype with them or film them remotely, they are available.”
Nancy Glass, boss of Heartland Docs producer Glass Entertainment Group, had to call back crews from six shows including Lincoln: An American President for CNN and HGTV’s Frozen in Time with Maureen McCormick, but is editing the first four of eight episodes of the reality series featuring the onetime Marcia Brady, while drinking “Quarantinis” during Zoom happy hours with her staff. “What’s interesting is not the aftermath of the outbreak but how will it affect people’s attitudes towards what they’re watching. Will they want to watch upscale shows when they’ve lost all of their money?” she adds.
“It’s like Mike Tyson said, ‘Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face’, Wheelhouse’s Montgomery jokes. “But unscripted has always been resilient and there will be a great opportunity out of this chaos.”