Hollywood’s New Pandemic Protocols

Racing to figure out how to film before we run out of new shows.

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi
Illustration: Pedro Nekoi
Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

The pandemic abruptly shut down all television production in March, as it did pretty much everything else, but so far there has still been plenty to watch. Late-night shows quickly regrouped, shooting from remote, undisclosed locations or their hosts’ rather nice homes. Saturday Night Live made a stab at Zoomification. And of course there are a zillion hours of streamable shows to catch up on or rewatch. But eventually the stockpile of TV will run low: A number of prime-time network series, most of which were close to finishing for the year, have cut short their seasons by anywhere from one to four episodes. And they haven’t gone back into production yet.

So what will happen? The broadcast networks have announced their new fall schedules, but both new and fall are being defined very loosely. Fox acquired L.A.’s Finest, a cop series that has already aired in its entirety on Spectrum cable systems; the CW is planning to air a presumably sanitized version of the noirish adult fairy-tale drama Tell Me a Story, 20 episodes of which previously ran on the streaming service CBS All Access starting in 2018; and NBC will transplant the Canadian drama Transplant. But not even Netflix has a bottomless supply of new scripted series warehoused somewhere and ready to stream. So there’s a special urgency to the resumption of production that’s now being planned and, in a few cases, actually beginning.

Daytime soaps are serving as the beta test. In certain ways, they’re easier to imagine restarting safely since they shoot on the same sets every day with a fixed cast and a permanent crew. On June 17, CBS’s The Bold and the Beautiful, after instituting elaborate safety practices that notably included the deployment of a life-size doll, formerly used as a prop corpse (!), for scenes too steamy for social distancing, became the first scripted network show to resume production. That triumphant return lasted exactly one day before the show shut down again to rethink its testing protocols. The Bold and the Beautiful is now back in production again — who knows for how long? — with General Hospital and The Young and the Restless scheduled to walk gingerly out onto the ice in the next few weeks.

After that, it gets murkier. Virtual writers’ rooms have already convened, but the process of starting up actual filming is laden with asterisks. Short of quarantining an entire cast and crew and their families in a Truman Show village for the duration of production (which, in the case of soaps, would mean forever), there is no way to coronaproof a studio workplace. A set is safe only until someone tests positive, a daily possibility due to the virus’s long incubation. Right now, TV people are mildly optimistic about getting up and running again. They’re not that far behind yet. If all goes smoothly, an episode could theoretically be on the air just a few weeks after it shoots.

But then what? Showrunners already know they may be held hostage to abrupt, and possibly extended, pauses in production. That means not only new rules on set but also new approaches to every aspect of TV-making, from what stories are told to how they are shot and who gets cast in them. TV overall will become smaller, with few multi-episode story lines or sprawling location shoots. “When I think about getting an episode of TV made, the list of difficulties is so long,” one New York–based producer told me in despair. And now you won’t be able to easily take over an existing building for a location or shoot in a park or on the street; everything will have to be contained and controlled. But how? Here’s what the TV-makers I spoke with think will most likely happen.

1. The 22-episode season is history.

On cable and streaming services, seasons of as few as six and no more than 13 episodes have long been standard, and even on networks, the definition of a “full season” order has been edging down toward 18 or 19. But there have been holdouts: During the 2018–19 season, for instance, the three shows in NBC’s Chicago franchise produced 22 hour-long episodes apiece, and CBS’s NCIS and its two spin-offs produced 24 hour-long episodes each. That’s almost certainly over. Longer production schedules for each episode will mean that money needs to be saved somewhere. Reducing the episode count is an easy, probably necessary, solution.

2. Bye-bye, bicoastals.

“I’m not risking a five-hour plane flight so I can stay in some furnished apartment that maybe hasn’t even been cleaned, sit on a set for 12 hours, put on a white coat, and say, you know, ‘The lab results just came back, and the blood on the knife is AB-negative!’ ” one actress told me. “And then another plane flight back to New York? No.” She’s in luck: Since producers need to find ways to save money given the slower pace of production and the installation of health protocols, cutting way down on airfare and hotel accommodations for actors who live in New York but film for short stints in L.A. (or Toronto or Atlanta) is a no-brainer. It also means more work for New York’s deep bench of stage talent, which will now provide the first and only choices for guest roles on shows shot in NYC (those include Law & Order: SVU, Blue Bloods, FBI and FBI: Most Wanted, The Blacklist, New Amsterdam, Prodigal Son, and the Queen Latifah reboot of The Equalizer as well as a couple dozen cable and streaming shows and limited series). Safety concerns will also mean the end, at least for now, of in-person auditions and callbacks; casting will be done completely on video.

3. TV — it’ll be just like a play!

Remember “Fly,” the 2010 episode of Breaking Bad in which Walter and Jesse spend an entire hour trying to find and kill a fly in their new, putatively airtight super-lab? That’s what’s known as a “bottle episode,” in which the action is generally confined to a single set or location and the cast lacks guest stars. Historically, they’re what showrunners do when they’re all out of money and need to produce a cheap hour to counterbalance a more expensive or elaborate one. Now they’ll be used as a solution to a different set of problems. “My prayer,” says one nervous showrunner, “is that things will go smoothly enough so that we can kind of sprinkle these throughout the season rather than be forced to front-load them. But who knows?”

4. More talking, less fighting.

One way to simplify production is for shows to have fewer and lengthier scenes. Do two characters need to have it out over the dinner table? Is an interrogation in progress? Expect those exchanges to get an extra page or two in scripts and some of the additional dialogue to be devoted to characters telling you something they just found out, whereas before you would have watched them find it out themselves in a separate scene. This will be more visible on some series than others; SVU, for instance, can maximize its use of studio sets (courthouse, squad room, cell, forensics lab), but turning the CW’s fleet of outdoorsy, comic-book-spawned action series into talkfests may require more ingenuity.

5. The end of the extra.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for contemporary dramas set in cities to re-create Black Lives Matter protests; any scene into which 20 to 50 extras would formerly have been packed in close proximity (a classroom, a staff meeting, a theater, a restaurant) will have to be rethought. In movies, the possibilities for digital fakery are endless if there’s enough money, will, and time (cue the army of bloodthirsty orcs!). But TV production needs to be efficient, and attempts to manufacture digital crowds could easily grind the gears to a halt. One technologically less demanding solution is to green-screen in a background full of extras from an already filmed episode; it won’t look nearly as good as either the real thing or body-by-body digital fakery would, but a decline in visual polish may be a concession that viewers and producers are willing to make in exchange for keeping new product flowing.

6. Prefab looks.

It may sound silly, but how many actors want to sit in hair and makeup for an hour every day? So expect more wigs. A number of actresses have already gone in this direction to save both time and their scalps.

7. You’ll be able to walk down the street unimpeded by pushy PAs.

Shed a tear for one of the familiar love-hate experiences of living in New York City — your walk home that is interrupted by dudes with baseball caps and walkie-talkies, a craft-service tent, curbs lined with rows of trailers, doors marked LUCY and DESI, and, possibly, a glimpse of someone famous (not to mention the knowledge that your block itself is somewhat famous). Location shoots are exponentially harder and less controllable than working on studio sets. They’re cramped, they’re crowded, they’re desperately slow, and, most unnerving, they’re permeable with casts, crews, and the wider world of passersby intermingling. Even if the virus spreads less outdoors than indoors, what the makers of TV are trying to do right now is reduce variables. Showrunners aren’t saying “Never,” but they’re definitely saying “Not now.”

8. Writers will become more important — and then less important.

Hour-long dramas are always, to a degree, done on the fly. A script can be written and rewritten, but if something doesn’t sound right to the star of the show in the moment, or if a location has to change because of the weather, or if a guest star is available only for a certain number of days, teleplays can be revised up to the moment they’re shot. Showrunners say there’ll be less of that; scripts will need to be finalized and approved early. The downside: Attempts to keep on-set personnel to an absolute minimum could mean some writers will have to watch their scripts being shot remotely, a serious impediment for a medium in which the writer-producer is the dominant creative force.

9. You can’t wait quite so long for everything to make sense.

No show wants to be in the position Fox’s Empire found itself in when the onset of the coronavirus meant that the two episodes designed to tie up all the loose ends in its six-year run of OMG plot twists would never be shot. (Another long-runner, Supernatural, had its 15th and final season cut short but is hoping to resolve everything with a seven-episode mini-season late in the year.) Network shows are often in postproduction until just days before they air, so a sudden reversal of fortune, whether a sick crew member, a new quarantine, or a change of a state or city policy, could potentially stop a show with almost no notice. If that happens, it’s best not to go out on a cliffhanger. In 2020, real life is providing more than enough of those.

*This article appears in the July 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

How Hollywood Studios Are Scrambling to Make TV