It’s end of July. Usually at this time, broadcast TV dramas would be back in production, with comedies also getting started on new seasons. But in summer 2020, disrupted by the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic, cameras on fall scripted series have yet to begin rolling.
Somewhat surprisingly, S.W.A.T., which was only moved up from midseason to CBS’ fall schedule two weeks ago to replace Survivor, could be the first broadcast primetime scripted series to resume production; it is tentatively slated to begin filming Tuesday in Los Angeles. I hear actors and crew have already been tested ahead of the potential shoot. As is the case with any production during the pandemic, the situation is fluid, and the eyed start of production could be pushed, but currently, it looks promising for filming to commence. The Good Doctor is right behind, gearing up to start production by mid-August in Vancouver.
As studios are ramping up preparations for possible August-September restarts amid protracted negotiations with the unions on safety protocols, it has become increasingly likely that the fall launches on ABC, CBS and NBC — which rely almost entirely on seasons that are yet to be produced — will be at least partially delayed. While the networks have found ways to get a large portion of their reality series back into production under COVID-19 guidelines, the intricacies and scope of scripted series productions have been challenging to overcome, a process that has been further complicated by the difficult negotiations with the guilds that have been going on for a month and a half.
With many broadcast scripted series not expected to launch until deeper in the fall, I hear studios are considering keeping them in production through June or longer, as the 2020-21 broadcast season may shift or air in stages, with some scripted shows starting later and airing into the summer.
Additionally, I hear broadcast productions are considering eliminating the holiday production break — traditionally a three-week hiatus — with cast and crew only off for the days designated as official holidays. That would help catch up on completed episodes as well as eliminate the health risk associated with cast and crew and their families going away for the holidays, which may require another quarantine upon their returns.
Those quarantines are paid for by the studios. In addition to the main casts, it would include guest stars, I hear. After taking a pre-production test, they would be paid scale to self-isolate for several days until they are called to film their scenes, sources said.
Leading S.W.A.T. studio Sony Pictures TV has been at the forefront of setting up returns to production. Its The Young and the Restless daytime soap has been in production for weeks and its ABC drama series The Good Doctor is on track to start filming in the next two weeks. A couple of other series, including the New York-based The Blacklist and Los Angeles-based The Goldbergs, could potentially resume shooting by end of August.
There is a slew of other series eyeing that last week August for potential start like Warner Bros TV’s Vancouver-based series including The Flash and Riverdale; Disney TV Studios’ Vancouver series including A Million Little Things and Big Sky; CBS TV Studios’ Vancouver-based CW series including Charmed; and WBTV’s HBO Max series The Flight Attendant, which shoots in New York. (The final three episodes of the CW’s Supernatural are expected to begin filming within the next couple of weeks in Vancouver.) A ton of other broadcast series are currently exploring an early September start.
Of course any plans, even tentative, are contingent on the course the pandemic would take in the coming weeks and on the studios reaching an agreement with the unions on safety guidelines. As Deadline reported, the two sides have had difficult negotiations with a number of stumbling blocks including over the kind and frequency of testing, whether COVID coordinators should be union members, and whether those who test positive be paid sick leave.
According to sources, the two sides are getting closer to an agreement. Testing continues to be an unresolved issue, I hear. The unions had been asking for daily testing while studios have been proposing testing the casts and those in close contact with them three times a week and the others once a week. That roughly has been the frequency employed by the soaps, which have resumed shooting.
COVID-19 tests are expensive and, with the high numbers of new infections in California and other production hot spots like Georgia, labs are getting overwhelmed. That could cause processing delays for productions with large casts and crew, leading to unplanned pauses in filming as they wait for results.
Additionally, even with all the precautions, if the cast and crew are not in a quarantine bubble similar to the setup used on Tyler Perry’s series and by the NBA season, infections appear inevitable. I hear some productions are considering an automatic production shutdown provision when a number of cast or key crew members — as few as three — test positive during production.
The complex issue was addressed by Perry, who sequesters the casts and crew of his shows on the lot of his Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta for the duration of the shoot.
“It’s my hope that everybody could go back to work,” he told Deadline earlier this week. “I don’t know how that happens without daily testing or quarantine bubbles.”