How TV networks are getting through COVID

Every May, the five big television networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW — host what can only be described as spectacles.

There are celebrities and red carpets and glamorous parties and presentations hosted by the networks’ affable late-night hosts held at iconic New York theaters such as Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Center. But no part of these dog-and-pony shows are intended for television audiences. They are the “Upfronts”—annual presentations networks make to ad buyers and the media introducing them to their fall television schedules in a bid for dollars and attention.

Thanks to COVID-19, this year’s Upfronts looked considerably different than in years past. Most notably, the parties and red carpets and celebrity panels were canceled in favor of remote presentations and quieter virtual “town halls” with ad buyers.

Aside from how the presentations themselves were made, the content of the presentations was wildly different this year. In normal years, Upfronts are mostly trailers and clips of upcoming new series, and panels with members of a hot new cast.

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But COVID-19 shut the world down right in the middle of pilot season, the period in early spring when networks film pilot episodes of the TV series they are considering adding to their schedules. Virtually no pilots were able to be completed this year, so very few new series could be confidently added to the fall schedule. The networks had to admit that the bulk of their fall seasons would be the same old shows from last year.

Of course, even that was contingent on those same old series being able to return to production.

Fox had originally planned to launch two mid-season shows last spring, but paused those plans as lockdowns began and moved the series to its fall schedule. They might not have originally been intended to be fall shows, but they are now.

The network’s biggest gamble was on bringing back a hit from recent seasons, “The Masked Singer,” and deciding to go forward with its new reality singing competition “I Can See Your Voice.” Both series were among the first to restart production, using virtual audiences and social distancing.

The other network that chose to fully corona-proof its fall lineup was The CW. Back in May, The CW announced that its popular superhero shows and teen dramas would not be returning until January at the earliest.

The only staple CW series that will return this fall is the long-running “Supernatural,” which was scheduled to end its 15-season run in the spring, only to have production on the final episodes interrupted by lockdowns. The CW held back the final episodes and began airing them beginning October 8. The long-awaited series finale will now air on November 19, giving fans a little extra time with the Winchester boys.

As for the other big three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC promised advertisers a return to normalcy in the fall with their most popular series. It is worth noting, however, that they declined to announce when the shows would return. This turned out to be a prudent move, as production on most scripted series was not able to resume until September, pushing back for months the traditional start to the fall season.

ABC and NBC have since padded their schedules with game shows and competition series to fill the slate until their comedies and dramas can return.

ABC had to postpone one of its most popular spring series, “The Bachelorette,” as filming was set to start the week the lockdowns began. To salvage the season, the producers had to get creative — they scrapped the plans to film in Italy and other romantic remote locations and in July, began filming in a quarantine bubble at an isolated resort.

It was the first non-scripted series to begin filming in the United States since the pandemic began. It is now set to premiere on October 13, marking the first time the series will air in the fall.

ABC also went forward with “Dancing with the Stars,” isolating the contestants in quarantine, using extreme social distancing and eliminating the house band and extra performances by professional dancers. Former professional Dancing with the Stars dancer Derek Hough has returned to the show as a judge, filling in for Len Goodman, who was unable to return to the States due to travel restrictions.

Sadly for Cobie Smulders fans, “Stumptown” was abruptly canceled after being renewed for a second season. ABC ended the series because it could not resume production in time for a fall premiere, marking the only network cancellation caused by the pandemic. (Netflix canceled two previously renewed series, “I’m Not Okay With This” and “The Society,” due to budget and logistical issues caused by the virus.)

ABC’s medical dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Good Doctor” have announced that the coronavirus crisis will make its way into their storylines.

Like the rest of us, thanks to the pandemic, television has had to adjust, adapt and delay.

But just like everything else around the world, TV will return to normal … eventually.

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