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How COVID-19 Might or — More Likely — Might Not Change the TV We Watch at Home
June 22, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

The times, they are changing — but it may be a while before TV changes with them.

Soon after 9/11, I asked media scholar and oft-quoted pop-culture commentator Robert Thompson — whose soundbites are so widespread the AP has dubbed them "Thompson-isms"— how he thought the collective shock of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks might change the TV we watch at home.

To even ask that question, Thompson replied — my own personal Thompson-ism — reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of how pop culture works in the American landscape.

We watch what makes us feel comfortable and at ease, even more so in tense times, and what makes us comfortable and at ease, changes slowly and incrementally, over time, and not overnight.

Here's another 9/11 TV story. Bertram van Munster, co-creator of The Amazing Race, admitted to feeling uncertain about the future of his then-brand-new reality-competition series, on which contestant teams race around the world. The Amazing Race bowed on CBS on Sept. 5, 2001. A week later, to the day, van Munster couldn't possibly see how the show could ever air again. The opening titles even showed a passenger jet zooming through a cityscape of skyscrapers. CBS did delay The Amazing Race, as it turned out — all the way to Sept. 19.

Survivor was also thought to be in trouble. Who could possibly want to watch a reality-competition series about a group of entitled, self-absorbed pop-culture wannabes, toggling between eating bugs and cheeseburgers in a remote tropical location and calling it survival when 9/11 showed us what real-life survival means, stripped bare to its elemental harshness and capricious fate. Survivor was a cultural sensation when it debuted in May 2000. The second season, which aired from Jan. 2001 to May of that same year, drew an equally sizeable audience. The third season was slated to debut in late September. As it happened, after the 9/11 terror attacks, Survivor: Africa debuted on Oct. 1 — just three weeks later. Numbers were down, but they were still respectable. Today, virtually 20 years later, Survivor is still on the air.

Insiders at the Fox Network worried that there would be little audience appetite for a seemingly trivial singing competition series called American Idol — not with the more important things going on in the world at the time. American Idol bowed in June 2002, less than a year after 9/11. It didn't just exceed expectations: It smashed them.

What does this mean for TV in the post-COVID-19 era? As with so much about the coronavirus pandemic, no one can say for sure — but one thing that does seem certain is that only a fool or someone who has "a fundamental lack of understanding about how pop culture works in the American landscape," would expect change overnight.

Here's what we do know. America's Got Talent is back, in slightly modified form. The Voice managed to get its season in, social distancing and all.

Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and others are desperate to get production up and running again; the backlog of inventory is finally starting to dry up, and the majors want to get more programming into the pipeline before it dries up. The audience appetite for more is, if anything, growing, driven in large part by the lockdowns that will return if, as many scientists are warning, a second wave of COVID-19 strikes, perhaps as early as the colder weather in the fall. The Good Fight has been delayed in post-production, but seven new-season episodes rolled out last month on CBS All Access just the same; 10 episodes are to be expected if past seasons are anything to judge by.

Interestingly, production has resumed in several European countries, including Iceland, which most recently hosted Game of Thrones. New on-set protocols are in effect: smaller crews with fewer behind-the-scenes technicians, a ban on intimate scenes between actors for the time being, and — key point here — much testing, and mandatory facemasks.

Writer-producers are being told to write around the new rules which, strange as it may sound, could boost creativity as show creators are now forced to think outside the box. TV programs take ages to make, and post-production is arguably the most misunderstood — and least recognized — part of making a TV show, where viewers are concerned. One result of this is that the world that appears in TV dramas and sitcoms is of the recent past, but not the immediate past. Even most of the documentaries now on Netflix and Amazon were made in 2019. Some, like The Last Dance, seem like an artifact from a past age; others, like Tiger King and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, look and feel more recent but are not in the here and now.

The lockdown created an increased awareness of public service television: TV as a shared national experience. A paucity of live sports has resulted in a growing interest in news and information programming, at that exact moment when — criticism of the news media aside — real news and solid information have never been more important in our shared lives. PBS News Hour has never felt more relevant or needed. PBS' Frontline proves on a bi-weekly basis that the truth matters and perspective on the past helps us understand what is going on today.

Late-night TV audiences have taken to the made-on-the-fly, homegrown efforts of Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and others, as the late-night talk show hosts are compelled to focus more and concentrate harder on their guest interviews, all the while relying less on cheap sight gags and easy parodies.

The World Economic Forum reported last week that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a curveball through the advertising industry: Ad spends are down an average 9% across Europe (US figures are likely similar). The COVID-19 crisis is forecast to affect three of this year's quarters more than the 2008 financial crisis. Year on year, according to the World Economic Forum, advertising spending across China is down 15%.

Advertising may be down, but — no surprise here — in-home usage is up. The World Economic Forum says TV viewership has climbed, and digital streaming services have increased even more. Gaming is up dramatically. (The real winners of the COVID-19 pandemic may well prove to be the Internet service providers; wifi is the new cable.)

The pandemic will likely change the way the advertising industry works over the long term.

What that means to the content of television is still up in the air, though. Thompson would point out, for example, that while industry insiders may point to Lost as the last big-budget, eye-filling ensemble drama to debut on a commercial broadcast network— in 2004 — Lost led in turn to Game of Thrones, an even bigger-budget, more eye-filling ensemble drama.

Lost's fervent fans still had an appetite for big-budget, eye-filling ensemble drama; the only difference is that the new one aired on HBO rather than ABC.

Logic would seem to suggest the era of expansive — and expensive — ensemble dramas is over, especially if the current trend away from commercial advertising continues, or even grows.

The smart money may well go the opposite way. The next big, commercially successful ensemble drama may well be even bigger and more daring than Game of Thrones. The point is, much like the coronavirus pandemic itself, no one really knows least of all those who are paid to know.

The one thing that does seem certain, as Thompson pointed out back on 9/12, is that the American public wants to be entertained and informed at the same time. There is room for both Tiger King and Frontline, and that didn't change because of COVID-19.

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