When it comes to the ups and downs of the television industry, there isn’t a whole lot Tom Nunan hasn’t seen.
The founder of a TV and film production company called Bull’s Eye Entertainment, Nunan used to be president of the UPN network. Before that, he headed NBC Studios, oversaw Fox Broadcasting Company’s prime-time lineup, and was in charge of movies at ABC.
But neither Nunan nor anyone else in the television industry has ever experienced anything like the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the foundations of TV, including the near-sacrosanct fall season. “This is normally the time of year when you’d be going into production on a series that was going to air in the fall,” said Nunan. “But production has largely come to a halt. … What’s so daunting about this is that it’s out of our control.”
For TV viewers, too, it will be a strange autumn. They’ve long been accustomed to the annual mid-September burst of promotional ballyhoo, followed by a flood of new shows and first-run episodes of returning programs.
“This will definitely be a fall television season unlike any we’ve seen before,” said one network executive, requesting anonymity to speak about the current turmoil. “There’s no doubt about it. No one can say with any degree of certainty when these shows might start rolling out.” The executive added: “It’s possible you won’t see [new] network shows till November,” while conceding that any timetable necessarily constitutes an “educated guess.”
Guesswork is pretty much all the networks can do at the moment, because COVID-19 has turned the usual TV production schedule upside down. In a typical year, July and August are when the networks begin to film scripted dramas and comedies. But the pandemic forced a shutdown across Hollywood in March, and for the most part it has not been safe to resume. Just when hope had begun to stir this summer for a possible return to a semblance of normality, there was a new surge of coronavirus cases nationwide. COVID-19 keeps moving the goal posts.
“You’re looking at production centers in New York, LA, Georgia, Canada, all being affected in different ways by the virus,” noted the network executive. “Production is at a standstill.”
Like so much else on television, the tradition of the fall season is connected to advertisers, having originally been devised to coincide with the beginning of the model year for new cars. Even though many viewers today watch TV on their own schedules, and cable networks routinely introduce new shows throughout the year, the symbolic and actual significance of the fall season for the major commercial broadcast networks has endured.
Right now, they’re scrambling. The CW network, home of the teen drama “Riverdale,” has opted to delay the official launch of its new season until January. ABC, CBS, and NBC have announced schedules for the 2020-21 season, but largely have not announced premiere dates yet, due to the fluidity of the situation. (CBS’s long-running “Survivor” has been taken off the fall schedule due to concerns about the coronavirus on Fiji, where the season is to be filmed.) Network hopes of salvaging at least part of 2020 are reflected in a statement by Paul Telegdy, chairman of NBC Entertainment, that NBC is “confident that our schedule will premiere intact later this fall.”
But Martie Cook, who wrote for “Full House” and “Charles in Charge” and now teaches television writing at Emerson College, said it’s clear that the TV industry is facing an emergency — one that requires innovation, and fast. “It’s going to be catastrophic,” said Cook. “The networks and cable channels are really going to have to think out of the box.”
Patience will be required of viewers, but the fear of broadcast and cable networks alike is that their audiences won’t be patient. Will the absence of new and returning shows on broadcast and cable television accelerate the exodus of TV viewers to streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and Apple TV+?
“Viewers are creatures of habit, and instinctively, we’re expecting those new programs,” said Cook. “And since it’s been such a rough year, we crave all of the great shows we’re used to watching. We want those people back in our lives. The danger for networks is that if I’m really used to seeing my favorite show and I can’t wait for it to come back, and it doesn’t, I’m going to find my entertainment elsewhere and develop an attachment to shows that I can see on my time.”
The disruption of the fall TV season by COVID-19 and the wider uncertainty about the future could not come at a worse time for the television industry.
Broadcast networks have been losing audience share to cable channels for many years, but lately even premium-cable powerhouses like HBO and Showtime have had plenty to worry about. A July 21 story in Variety noted that “cord-cutting” (canceling cable subscriptions in favor of Internet-based TV services like Netflix) has “become a real threat,” with the number of pay-TV households declining from 105 million to 83 million in the past decade. (Tuesday’s Emmy Award nominations underscored the momentum of streaming services compared with networks: Netflix earned a record-setting 160 nominations, far eclipsing second-place HBO’s 107, although it’s worth noting that HBO’s “Watchmen” was the most-nominated single show, with 26).
The picture is no brighter for basic cable channels, several of which lost viewers in droves last year, according to Variety, from AMC (down 22 percent) to TBS (down 16 percent) to USA (down 19 percent) to TNT (down 14 percent).
One silver lining for broadcast networks is that they own some of the streaming services, such as NBC’s Peacock and CBS All Access, to which viewers are migrating. But in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic that continues to cause untold economic damage, streaming services shouldn’t get too cocky, either.
“The issue with a lot of this is really financial for a lot of people,” said Cathy Perron, a former program executive for network affiliates who is an associate professor in the film and television program at Boston University’s College of Communication. “Part of the effect of the pandemic is people experiencing economic hardship, and if you start adding all these streaming platforms to your monthly budget, and you’re adding $12 a month for this and $14.99 a month for that, it starts to add up. Those are the kinds of discretionary funds that every family is going to start to look at.”
The networks have their own macro-version of money worries. As a former network president and programmer, Nunan feels the pain of his erstwhile counterparts as they try to navigate the next few months. “I don’t envy their having to hold hands with advertisers and say ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to come up with something that will be worth your tens of millions of dollars,’ ” he said.
Predicted Emerson’s Cook: “The financial fallout from all of this, when all is said and done, will be astronomical.”
In Nunan’s view, the chaos caused by the pandemic should amplify calls for changes in the hectic, hurry-up way that television seasons are put together. “Nobody thinks this is a sane approach to business,” he said. “I believe the pandemic has given everybody a chance to stop and just say ‘Let’s not do it like this anymore.’ It’s all built around a schedule the advertisers have created.”
That schedule ordinarily works this way: By April or May, TV networks have informed producers whether their shows will be on the fall prime-time schedule, although slam-dunk returnees often hear earlier than that. Once a show has been given the green light, its scriptwriters swiftly repair to the writers’ room and begin hammering out scripts for the new season, mapping out story lines and character arcs and pivotal plot points.
Meanwhile, a pivotal moment of a different sort is taking place on the business side, usually in mid-to-late May. That’s when the networks make hoopla-laden presentations of their fall season to Madison Avenue ad buyers in what are known as the “upfronts.” Then, in normal years, comes the July-August start to the filming of episodes, with the dramas usually beginning to shoot in July and the comedies in August.
Restarting TV production, whenever that takes place, is likely to be a laborious process. Studios and production companies will need to ensure that their health and safety protocols comply with state and local requirements. Sign-off from unions like SAG-AFTRA, which represents TV and film actors, will be necessary before everyone heads back before the cameras. (For anyone worried their favorite star will decamp if the shutdown drags on: Contractual obligations remain in place, requiring actors to return to their shows once they begin shooting, sources said.).
So, in the absence of new shows, what will the fall season look like? Expect the networks to shovel more reality shows onto the schedule, along with some programs they already had shot and banked. Expect them also to acquire preexisting programs to fill the gaps, such as shows that had short runs on streaming services. In the absence of new entertainment programs, prime time could well become home to more news programming, especially since this is a high-stakes presidential election year that will have no shortage of drama.
In search of pandemic-proof programming, networks might also turn their attention to animation. “There are tons of animated shows that have been ordered during the pandemic,” said Nunan, who was an executive producer on the Oscar-winning film “Crash” and lectures at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “If I was running a network these days, I’d be loading up on that, and not just half-hour shows. One hour.” A potential downside, however, is that the development of animated shows usually involves a significant gestation period.
Cook, of Emerson, suggested that TV executives might look to webisodes for programming ideas, or create shows with very few characters (HBO is reportedly considering a reboot of “In Treatment,’' a series about a therapist and his patients that could be filmed in a socially-distant way), or programs that lean into our current predicament. One idea proposed by Cook: a show about a family that is scattered around the globe and meets on Zoom.
In her view, the pandemic-generated need for new product and new formats opens up a big opportunity for young creatives. “[Networks] are looking for those young, hip, creative voices,” she said. “And the younger generation really thinks creatively, because they’ve grown up with the iPhone and tablets and YouTube, different ways of looking at stuff.”
The disruption to the fall TV season also presents an opportunity for viewers — and many of them have already been seizing it while stuck in quarantine — to immerse themselves in the ocean of shows they’ve been hearing about but haven’t seen. “Right now a lot of viewers are saying: What did I miss?” said BU’s Perron. “There’s a lot of content out there that will keep viewers satisfied. It’s a great time for discovery.”