Grab the remote and watch how TV is changing this fall

Why We Wrote This

With theaters largely closed, Americans are turning to small screens for escape. But TV production is still catching up from pandemic lockdowns in the spring. What does that mean for programming now – and in the coming year? 

Courtesy of HBO Max
Actor and singer Selena Gomez's new cooking show, "Selena + Chef," was created during the pandemic lockdowns. The program, streaming on HBO Max, has been picked up for a second season.

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This fall, viewers should expect what they see on the small screen to look a bit different: More game shows and reality offerings – and programs remaining on hiatus. Already, audiences have been replaced with laugh tracks, and there is more talk of computer-generated settings and characters. 

Even with the industry finding a path forward, and some fan favorites like “The Mandalorian” and “This Is Us” on track to return this month, there is still uncertainty about the pipeline for new programming, with a pull toward unscripted shows until the pandemic subsides. As they navigate the new landscape, producers and directors across formats are being presented with opportunities to rethink how they create.  

“Selena + Chef,” starring Selena Gomez, was developed during the pandemic. The singer and actor collaborated with Grammy-winning executive producer Aaron Saidman, who wanted a program that could be responsibly and safely produced, he says.

With safety accounted for, he encouraged the star and crew to focus on being as authentic as possible – a necessity for unscripted shows. The result, he says, is “you could just do your job and make a great television.” 

Nothing is the same these days, including what Americans will be seeing on television for the next few months. 

Viewers should expect a lot of game shows and reality offerings – and for some programs to remain on pause. PBS’s beloved “Antiques Roadshow,” for example, is on extended hiatus until it is safe for attendees to once again mingle publicly with their favorite objets d’art.

As people channel-surf this fall, they will see the approaches showrunners are experimenting with to continue to bring programs to TVs and tablets. Already, audiences have often been replaced with laugh tracks, interview shows are conducted remotely, and there is more talk of computer-generated settings and characters. It’s a time of rethinking not just of formats, but of content, too.

“You may not be able to have a sitcom set in the present, where everyone is sitting around not wearing masks. So they may go back to the ’50s or the ’60s or the ’70s,” suggests Bob White, who has been teaching television, video production, and animation at Simmons University in Boston for more than 50 years.

Besides reaching into the past, studios may also offer more comforting, easy-to-digest fare, he says. Nostalgia is already driving game show reboots like “Weakest Link” on NBC and ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” which returns for a second season on Oct. 18 after hustling to finish production in March on the eve of lockdowns in the United States.  

Due to the spring and summer shutdown, more shows will be rolling out new seasons later than usual throughout the fall. Fan favorites like “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ and NBC’s “This Is Us,” which plans to incorporate both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, will return later this month. Programs featuring essential workers, arriving between now and December, also plan to tackle the current health crisis. Among them are ABC’s “Black-ish” and NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” Some shows will now be seen in 2021, including “Rutherford Falls,” a comedy featuring the largest Indigenous writing staff ever hired for a U.S. TV show. It’s set to stream on the Peacock platform from NBCUniversal.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Cast members Pedro Pascal and Gina Carano pose at the premiere for the Disney+ series "The Mandalorian" in Los Angeles, Nov. 13, 2019.

A push to problem solve

Unions and guilds negotiated new safety guidelines with studios in recent weeks. But even with the industry finding a path forward, there is still uncertainty about the pipeline for new programming, with a pull toward unscripted shows until the pandemic subsides. As they navigate the new landscape, producers and directors across formats are being presented with opportunities to rethink how they create.  

Like a lot of people, actor and singer Selena Gomez wanted to use her time at home during lockdown to become a better cook. She collaborated with executive producer Aaron Saidman of Industrial Media’s The Intellectual Property Corporation, whom she’d worked with previously, to create “Selena + Chef,” streaming on HBO Max and picked up for a second season.

Mr. Saidman, who won an Emmy for the A&E series “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath,” had never undertaken this kind of show before, but he wanted a program that could be responsibly and safely produced during the pandemic, he says. He sent a cleaning crew into Ms. Gomez’s home and sanitized everything, set up cameras, and then sanitized again. The same was done with the chefs helping her each week. Everyone behind the scenes wore masks and kept their distance. Cameras in the house were operated from outside. With safety accounted for, he encouraged the star and crew to focus on the production, so that “authenticity could come forward.”  

“You could just do your job and make a great television,” he says. “In an unscripted TV show people really need to be themselves.”

Given that creating television is not a socially distanced process, adaptation has been key to moving forward. Michael Hunold, a veteran gaffer, or electrician, living in upstate New York, has been working on a show with pandemic protocols in place. He can’t mention the name contractually, but says it is a big-budget, successful program in its third season. The return to work is precipitated by strict observance of COVID-19 protocols, he says, and the budget to allow protective measures to be put into place.

In the past, green and blue screens were used to create expensive looking backgrounds when a production budget didn’t allow for more, Mr. Hunold says, but now such technology might become the standard – including more actors created by CGI – given pandemic restrictions. “Every environment that isn’t being done digitally will be an extremely controlled environment,” he says.

In the spring, due to the shutdowns, NBC tried animating part of the season finale of crime drama “The Blacklist” to fill in gaps, with mixed reactions from fans. 

Professor White agrees that the trend could be toward a combination of real and computer-generated content. “The lines will be blurred,” between what’s real and what’s manipulated, he says. He adds that he doesn’t plan to teach his courses any differently than before, given that the need for strong stories will not change. 

Changing perspective 

The increased use of technology could also turn out to have an upside, observers say. Mr. Saidman, one of several executive producers on “Selena + Chef” including Ms. Gomez, had an “aha” moment when he realized on the first day of shooting that he was working at home in his pajamas and that perhaps it wasn’t as “essential” for him to be on set as he once thought.

“There are important creative reasons that a producer goes to the set,” he says, but adds that there “was certainly a moment where we realized through technology that there’s perhaps an efficiency that we might not have stumbled upon [pre-COVID-19].”

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