Coronavirus has impacted every single aspect of our lives including the 2020 pilot season leaving no pilots fully filmed. Originally networks announced that they would hold the upfronts digitally but on April 10, Adweek reported that the broadcast upfronts were all postponed. Though renewal and cancellation news is rolling out as expected, it’s entirely up in the air for the newbies. There are ten straight-to-series orders in the pipeline but the most they can do with the other pilots is cast and do a table read remotely.
In a year where a Writer’s Strike was seen as inevitable and networks were ordering scripts early (which is funny because in the last strike the casts and crews also joined the strike out of solidarity), only sixty pilots received green lights. Additionally, the conflict between the WGA and agencies is still ongoing and it’s unclear what is to come on that end since negotiation couldn’t occur and WGA will continue working under the pact set to expire at the end of this month.
Below I outline what is happening in the broadcast world with a focus on what coronavirus might mean moving into next year.
Rise of Renancellations and Multi-season Renewals
Renancellations continued with ten shows for this season. I’m sure more were planned until again, the virus changed everything. (Sounds like a bad Fire Nation joke.) The CW in January renewed literally everything but Katy Keene (which it also gave 13 more episode scripts). I assume it will receive a renewal announcement in May if only because they have nothing else but Walker and Superman and Lois. The former of which cannot film scenes with the lead until the last two episodes of Supernatural film.
Conversely, NBC gave four shows multiple season renewals following in This is Us‘ footsteps from last year. New Amsterdam, and all of Dick Wolf’s shows received three season renewals. Interestingly, NBC’s multi-season renewal approach comes at a time where they’re launching streamer Peacock and attempting to bypass Nielsen ratings as the one and only by creating a new and one stop platform for advertising for ad buyers. Obviously at the time these shows hit their last seasons, ratings will be even more decimated than they are now (league average is currently a .72).
Since some shows ordered for this season have not aired, the networks could hold them until the fall (though no proper launch of the season can occur until most shows are filmed).
Decline of Imagination
In last year’s round-up, I wrote at length about how the paltry pilots resulted in the usual orders for procedurals and the related. As expected, that did not change this year. Additionally the dedication to building on already existing intellectual property continued full steam ahead with 20 of the pilots this year. Half the series orders are IP or based on real lives so if we do get more newbies, I’m sure more of them will be the same.
Usually this is where I’d point out that shows in the spring very rarely survive and the networks spend so much money ordering more shows than can truly fit in their schedules. Now with the schedule collapsing and filming not starting until [insert optimistic timeline here] who knows what makes it to air and survives into 2021. Which isn’t to say the networks are sitting back letting everything survive out of the goodness of their hearts. FOX cancelled Deputy earlier this year and all the networks have let shows die from the fall with more to come.
Future of Broadcast and Upfronts
The spread of COVID-19 revealed just how dependent we are on community health. Plus fears of the strike pushed networks into high gear with ordering extra or early scripts. After the 2007-8 strike, shows returned to film a number of episodes, and a few received even more episodes in the next season. For example, Criminal Minds had 20 episodes in season 3 but 26 in season 4.
However, that strike was in the middle of the season so filming could reconvene and start earlier for the new season. With coronavirus, this is impossible. Shows cannot return to film, so The CW’s plan to finish filming out the current seasons and air the eps as soon as possible was hilariously out of touch.
They might as well roll the last few episodes of the seasons into the new one and stick to the ~22 episodes. Even with contractual obligations to deliver episodes, I highly doubt casts, crews, and production teams will want to (or are even able to due to scheduling) film more episodes than usual, especially when the virus returns with a vengeance in the fall-next spring.
Networks can’t promo anything at the upfronts this year anyways and probably will have even more of a problem promoting next upfronts! (Though they’re saving money by not throwing parties and feeding everyone.) FOX will likely weather the storm the best. Their mix of pre-filmed unscripted and animation lets them air new episodes more regularly than the other networks who are more dependent on other sports, though FOX obviously couldn’t use baseball this year.
However that assumption is based on their live shows or unscripted reality getting to film which again, no one can do anytime soon. Even if LA or Vancouver (two of the main filming hubs) do open up filming in the fall, how will studios and lots keep everyone safe? Are there temperature checks every time someone steps on the lot? What about guest stars flying into and out of cities as they work on different shows?
Scripted or otherwise, do the actors themselves have to social distance on screen? How do networks account for family members of their casts and crews who might not return to as stringent of policies at their work places? They can green screen all they want but guest stars will still need to fly into sets. Deadline has a great detailed discussion and the bit about insurance and people signing a rider absolving the studios of liability should they contract the virus is indicative of how all industries will likely move forward. Apparently the projection to restart production is July/August (optimistically) but more likely September.
In that case, this might just lead to the decoupling of the new season start from September which was originally due to new car model releases. Since companies have been discussing and wanted a calendar time-table for Upfronts, the broadcast model could finally shift to January-December which would align better with (in a “normal year”) sports and other live events.
In May should we still get some new series or other news, I’ll be back to review that too!