COVID-19: What’s Next for TV Production?

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Photo by ray sangga kusuma / Unsplash

As it gets closer to easing out of lockdown, the audiovisual industry is beginning to move beyond crisis management. Now what? We know there will be changes to the industry in the short and medium terms. But what about long term? How is the industry reacting to ― and anticipating ― these changes? What are the big questions that we need to ask ourselves moving forward, and who will answer them? This article is the first in a series about what’s next for Canada’s TV production sector as it slowly emerges from the shutdowns put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19.

> Read the other articles in this series

The pandemic has had little impact on animation other than a short-term adjustment, as workers shifted to working from home. Development is also moving forward with few challenges. People, of course, prefer an in-person writing room. But by all reports, the shift to virtual is going well. Shaftesbury, for example, has ten writing rooms working across various genres, and the company reports that all are working well and meeting deadlines.  

Perhaps expectedly, things are a tad more complicated in live-action scripted and documentary production.

Collaboration is the word of the day

Various actors within the industry are working together to develop protocols for safe production. Health and safety being of provincial jurisdiction, each province has its own structure for working collaboratively to develop said protocols. 

For example, Quebec’s health and safety board released guidelines created with the input of the industry, to be applied starting June 8, 2020. 

Manitoba released its guide for production, developed by On Screen Manitoba with the assistance of the industry, to govern the re-opening of production June 1, 2020. 

In British Columbia, Creative BC is working with the industry to develop a plan to resume production safely, manage risk, and respond to any subsequent outbreak. 

In Ontario, the S.21 Committee has submitted similar protocols to the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development for review. “Everyone will have to realize that it is a different world,” says Shaftesbury Chief Executive Officer Christina Jennings. “We need to work together. It isn’t going to be the way it was for at least 18 to 24 months.”

Producers are collaborating on a global scale as well. Many in Canada check in with their peers in Australia, Iceland, and South Korea, where economies have opened up earlier. “There will always be competition for profits,” deems Boat Rocker Media CEO John Young. “But in the meantime, the industry is coming together in this crisis. Preparedness is very collaborative all around the world.” 

Challenges are aplenty ― but so are opportunities

In terms of being ready to go back into production, Canada may be ahead of other countries ― particularly the United States. This could provide an opportunity for U.S. companies to work in Canada and hire Canadian producers, or for U.S. broadcasters and platforms to commission Canadian content. Mosaic Entertainment Chief Operations Officer Eric Rebalkin says the company is planning for limited summer production, but that it is ready to ramp up as soon as restrictions are lifted. Christina Jennings also sees a competitive advantage. “Canada is well placed because we have been producing content with smaller crews than the U.S. already,” she says. “We are well positioned to transition to new protocols.”

Producers recognize that safety protocols will usher in creative changes. As it will be easier to manage health and safety on smaller productions, this could mean simpler stories, fewer extras, and fewer set, wardrobe, or hair changes. 

Then there’s the real estate. To film ‘Murdoch Mysteries,’ Shaftesbury will use its standing backlot and studio for more of their shoot days, as those locations are safer and easier to control. Christina Jennings says that the company is even considering investing in a second backlot to shoot ‘Frankie Drake’ for similar reasons. Concurrently, marblemedia Co-CEO Mark Bishop is looking to use the company’s property in Orangeville as a self-contained backlot.

Some production companies that do not own backlots or studio space are exploring genres that will be easier to produce with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Documentaries may be easier in the short term, as they typically require smaller crews. 

Eric Rebalkin says that after having focused on scripted drama, Mosaic is working on its first documentary for that reason. Rezolution Pictures Executive Producer Christina Fon is looking at ways for subjects to film themselves or for equipment to be sent directly in communities. For her part, Christina Jennings says that Shaftesbury had not done much animation in the past, but just happened to have two projects in development when COVID-19 hit. Those are moving forward without delay. The company is also working on a podcast series that can be produced remotely.

Limitations made necessary by the pandemic are frustrating and scary. Yet, the need to adapt and keep working is pushing producers to be more creative ― some even find it an exciting challenge. Eric Rebalkin feels a “creative resurgence” as Mosaic Entertainment comes up with new ideas that would work if physical distance or working from home became the norm, and as the company tries to adapt what it was already developing. 

Entertainment One is adapting content to be safer ― no sex scenes, no actors hugging, etc. ― but also to be more in tune with the times. According to the President of eOne Television Canada, Jocelyn Hamilton, “television has always been a reflection of reality and today’s reality will be written into stories, without them actually being a coronavirus story,” to avoid the cognitive dissonance of seeing pre-pandemic activity. 

Shows that require travel ― such as marblemedia’s ‘Restaurants on the Edge’ or Boat Rocker subsidiary Insight Production’s ‘Amazing Race Canada’ ― will not be able to shoot for a long time. Their producers are instead prioritizing “fast-to-market” shows, without sacrificing quality. For example, Boat Rocker expects production of another season of ‘Top Chef Canada’ to be easy to manage, even under safety protocols.

Jocelyn Hamilton hopes that the crisis is an opportunity to reboot the system and that it sparks an honest dialogue about ways in which producers can be more efficient and strengthen the industry. “For example, have shorter shoot days so everyone works less hard and stays healthy,” she says.

She concludes by emphasizing the need for unity throughout the industry. “We need to be together in this as an industry. ‘Stronger together’ is not just a hashtag.”

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