Production in a Pandemic Part 2: TV Shows

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ABC Studios in Times Square, New York, taken on October 13th, 2018.

Abby Throndson, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Many TV shows ended their Spring 2020 seasons early as production abruptly shut down in March because of the pandemic. The hit TV show “Supernatural” was set to air its series finale in the spring, but while filming the penultimate episode, the country went on lockdown. Some TV shows resumed filming over the summer and the cast returned to filming in September; the final seven episodes were released in October, with the finale airing on November 19th.

TV shows had options similar to film production to restart shooting. The first is to create a COVID bubble. Tyler Perry Studios, who produces the “Madea” movies, was one of the first to restart filming with this method. The entire cast and crew quarantines before coming on set to film. After quarantining, the group doesn’t see anyone outside of the bubble. This method, while still expensive, is one of the safest options without constant testing. 

Reality TV shows like “The Bachelor” and “Big Brother,” favor the bubble option. Even during regular seasons and filming, the cast is not in physical contact with people outside of the show, so this option makes the most sense for reality shows that require special living environments. The cast doesn’t require regular testing after creating the bubble, which makes production cheaper, while still following COVID-19 regulations. 

A collective Return to Work Agreement was set in place by various Hollywood groups including the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. The Agreement outlined another option to restart filming, which is to zone out the production space and people. The plan consists of four distinct zones (A-D) in which people are sorted into, depending on their specific job and exposure level. The agreement outlined how often each zone is supposed to be tested and addresses other concerns involving COVID regulations. 

People who are a part of zone D are those who can work from home, including editors and other post production workers, who do not require regular testing. Zone C consists of crew members who are able to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times and can distance themselves from other crew members working behind the camera. Zone C members get tested every two weeks. 

Those in Zone B are tested at least once a week, and the zone consists of crew members who are near the “hot set,” the set that is actively being used. Members of Zone B are able to wear PPE, but work closer with Zone A, increasing their potential exposure to the virus, so they require more testing. Zone A consists of actors and people who work closely with them when the actors are not wearing PPE. This is the highest level of exposure and the zone gets tested three times per week, the most of any zone.

There are also regulations about how the zones can interact with one another. Zones C and D are not allowed to go to the hot set without special permission and testing beforehand, or be in close contact with Zones A or B for more than 15 minutes. Zone B members are allowed to be near the hot set, or behind the scenes, as long as they do not interfere with the spaces set up for the Zone C workers. Zone A members work on the hot set and have specific places they can be while not filming. 

Zoning works best on scripted TV shows, such as “the Conners” and “Riverdale,” as long as the protocols are strictly followed. A crewmate of ABC’s “the Goldbergs” was recently said to have been dismissed for not following the zone rules and wearing their mask improperly. Compared to movies, TV shows are less likely to completely shut down due to a positive test on set. In October, a crew member of “Young Sheldon” tested positive for COVID-19 and once it was safe to do so, filming resumed.

TV shows have also taken on a change in narrative due to the pandemic, which potentially increases the safety of the Zone A actors and production team. Writers have been able to incorporate the pandemic into their shows in many different ways. The NBC hit show “This is Us” is addressing the pandemic on their present day timeline, highlighting the hardships of the pandemic and its effect on families. Medical dramas have a  unique opportunity to address the pandemic and “Grey’s Anatomy” is one that has taken on a COVID-19 storyline. Shows set in medical settings allow for characters to be wearing masks at almost all times, dressing in full PPE, and distancing themselves from their co-stars while filming scenes. The show has even highlighted some of the difficulties that real life nurses, doctors, and medical professionals are going through during the pandemic, even having the titular character contract the virus and be hospitalized in the season premiere.

While the pandemic is going to leave its mark on the world, we do not know the consequences of the global crisis on TV and media. Plots and characters have changed as well as aspects of filming and production.